LINCOLN — Those who remained inside Memorial Stadium to watch what had become of a once proud football program stood in silent shock.
On the north side, stone-faced Huskers walked off Tom Osborne Field as quickly as possible, confounded by the 21-17 finish emblazoned on the scoreboard.
“Just something that’s unacceptable, losing to Northern Illinois,” Jack Stoll said this week. “I remember just walking off this field disappointed.”
In the southwest corner, the double-digit underdogs decided one walk off the field wasn’t enough.
After bouncing around inside the locker room, Rod Carey and his team walked back down the pathway, cleats clicking over the disappointed murmur of fans around the stadium. They entered the field — the entire team — and posed for the camera.
Marauders basking in their Saturday afternoon plundering of Husker football.
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You know what happened next. Upheaval in Lincoln from the top down. Two years later there’s a new coach, a new athletic director and a new direction in Lincoln.
But 24 months after that historic loss, Nebraska finds itself in a remarkably similar position. And Saturday represents a chance to prove how much the program has grown — if at all.
The 2017 season began with a lackluster win over Sun Belt foe Arkansas State. NU then lost at Pac-12 Oregon, the game coming down to the wire. Then Northern Illinois entered quietly on a Husker Saturday and demoralized the program.
In 2019, NU began with a less-than-promising win over the Sun Belt’s South Alabama. The overtime loss to Pac-12 Colorado last week still stings. Frost is now 5-9 in two seasons at Nebraska, the hype surrounding the program dwindling.
And here comes Northern Illinois again, a 14-point underdog.
“I told a lot of recruits last night, you better be watching Saturday night at 7 o’clock,” Northern Illinois coach Thomas Hammock said in a press conference this week.
Hammock, in his first year at NIU after Carey left for Temple, downplayed using the 2017 win as motivation this week. Most of that team has moved on from NIU.
But a handful of contributors remain. And they remember.
“It’s a good chance for us to prove ourselves,” NIU running back Jordan Nettles said. “We don’t really get a lot of respect, it seems like, from other schools that are a higher division than us. So it’s a good way for us to get some respect.”
The difference this time, though, is that this Nebraska team talks of Northern Illinois like a conference foe. Because the Huskers know what happens when you don’t.
The Huskies have a feisty defense. They’ll muddy up run plays in the trenches. NU coach Scott Frost called them fire ants. NIU traveled to No. 11 Utah last week and gave the Utes a 35-17 scare. They’re used to playing Power Five teams away from home. At Iowa and Florida State last season. They travel to Vanderbilt on Sept. 28.
They remember the 90,000 in red two years ago. Were they intimidated?
“Not at all,” linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis said.
Said defensive tackle Weston Kramer: “We play teams like this every single year.”
Northern Illinois has the full attention of Frost’s program. Especially since the Huskers aren’t hitting on all cylinders.
The defense gave up 24 fourth-quarter points to Colorado. The offense sputtered in the shadow of the mountains in the third quarter, giving the Buffs a chance to break through the 17-0 NU halftime lead. Nebraska’s 12th in the Big Ten in offensive first downs, 11th in scoring offense and 11th in total offense.
And this week, Frost was forced to go to the men’s club soccer team on campus to try to find a kicker.
So this isn’t a time to overlook anyone, let alone the Mid-American Conference boogeyman.
“Last time they were here, they put our face in the mud, and we weren’t happy,” Nebraska cornerback Dicaprio Bootle said. “That’s something to be mindful of.”
The 2019 Huskers are different from that 2017 team, senior captain Mohamed Barry said. Two years ago, they didn’t take NIU seriously. Practice was loose. They figured they’d win by 40, not lose in a 21-17 slog.
“Every team we’re facing this year, we’re going to give them the respect that they deserve,” he said.
The loss two years ago on a foggy afternoon in Lincoln set into motion dramatic firings, then the hiring of Frost. In some ways, the loss was the single most impactful moment in bringing back the 1997 Husker quarterback. And since his return, the talk around the program has been about improvement and growth, on the field and off.
A win would take the program a step past where it was in 2017. A loss and NIU’s ghost could haunt Memorial Stadium even longer.
“Whatever happened in the past is in the past,” tackle Matt Farniok said. “It is what it is. What are we going to do to change tomorrow?”
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The Nebraska cheerleaders, band, and mascot welcome the team back to Memorial Stadium.
A visual overview of the University of Nebraska’s mascots over the years, originally published in 2003 by the Omaha World-Herald to celebrate a new and improved version of Herbie Husker.
Photos and information provided by World-Herald photographers and staff writers, NU Sports Information, and the Robert Ihrig Cornhusker Collection.
From 1900 to the 1940s, various corn images appeared on athletic publications, cheerleader outfits and fan material. By the late '30s and early '40s, the corn images started to take on a human appearance. A character with a head of corn dates back to the Corn Cobs men's spirit group mascot around 1942. This figure appeared throughout the next couple of decades, but apparently had no official name. Unofficial names for the cornhead figure included Corn Cob Man, Johnnie Husker and Old Man Cornhusker.
"Johnnie Husker" mascot on display at Bob's Gridiron Grille in Lincoln, Neb.
This character resembled the first cornhead guy, but this time looked more like a full ear of corn. Mr. Cornhead also sometimes sported a Bob Devaney-influenced cowboy hat. It was not uncommon to see multiple Mr. Cornheads roaming the sidelines during the games.
2011: Cornhead-wearing fans from Canadian, Texas continue tradition as they take in the scene at Memorial Stadium, before a football game against the Ohio State Buckeyes.
In 1962, the Corn Cobs introduced a new figure to replace the cornhead guy. The nine-foot straw-hatted giant was called Husky the Husker. The mascot's tenure, however, was short-lived, due in large part to the arrival of new coach Bob Devaney in 1962.
Coach Devaney is said to have been unimpressed with the Husky Husker character. A new image was needed. By 1963, as a nod to Devaney's previous job with the Wyoming Cowboys, red cowboy hats with the letter 'N' were made available for fans through free hat promotions. Likewise, a new generation of mascots would emerge also wearing cowboy hats.
Created by Bill Goggins, this character first appeared in the November 7, 1964 issue of Nebraska Farmer magazine. Initially called Mr. Big Red, the character later became known as Harry Husker. The character eventually became a sideline mascot in the early '70s, but after 1973, Harry vanished and Herbie Husker appeared.
"Harry Husker" mascot on display at Bob's Gridiron Grille in Lincoln, Neb.
1971: The Kansas Jayhawk and Baby Jay meet Mr. Cornhusker. Though Cornhusker was outnumbered two to one in mascots, Nebraska ran away with the game, 55-0.
2010: A Harry Husker mascot head from the 1950s and '60s continues to watch over fans at Barry's Bar & Grill in Lincoln.
A lady counterpart to Harry Husker appeared on a mug in 1965 that was given to parents by the Athletic Department. A Harry Husker mug was given to the fathers, and a Harriet Husker was given to the mothers.
"Harriet Husker" mascot on display at Bob's Gridiron Grille in Lincoln, Neb.
The most enduring of all Husker mascots first appeared in 1974. New coach Tom Osborne had taken over the year before, and it seemed time for another image change. Sports Information Director Don Bryant commissioned for the creation of a new mascot after seeing a cartoon by artist Dirk West of Lubbock, Texas, depicting a Nebraska farmer in overalls. Shortly thereafter, Herbie Husker was adopted as the official team symbol.
"Herbie Husker" mascot on display at Bob's Gridiron Grille in Lincoln, Neb.
1989: Herbie Husker underwent numerous manifestations over thirty years as mascot.
1996: Herbie Husker Keith Cunnings, a sophomore from Grand Island, gets suited up as Missouri's mascot zips up his tiger suit in the background.
2011: A Herbie Husker yard sign is garnished with a flotation device near the toll bridge connecting Decatur, Nebraska to Iowa - an area that had been heavily flooded earlier that year.
This character first appeared in the fall of 1993. Born of the vision of Associate Athletic Director Barbara Hibner, Lil' Red is known for his many antics. He dances, he stands on his head, and he can even make his head disappear. The mascot is an eight-foot tall figure inflated by a small battery-powered fan, worn by the human operator inside. Originally intended to appeal to children, Lil' Red has won national awards and rave reviews from across the country.
In early 2003, Athletic Director Steve Pederson announced that a new and improved Herbie Husker would be unveiled for the upcoming season. The new look trades in the overalls for jeans as well as leaner and more athletic body.
2009: A sharply-dressed Herbie Husker high-fives a fan as Nebraska took on Louisiana-Lafayette at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.
2016: Herbie Husker takes off his hat during the Big Red Bash at the Devaney Center in Lincoln.
2019: Herbie Husker also makes appearances at Nebraska basketball games. Here, he celebrates during halftime as Nebraska broke its seven-game losing streak with a 62-61 win over Minnesota.