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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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Chris Heady covers Husker football and is the Nebraska men's basketball beat writer. He started at The World-Herald in 2017. Follow him on Twitter @heady_chris. Email: chris.heady@owh.com.

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