LINCOLN — Maybe Nebraska fans will relax just a little bit now.
It’s been an interesting week after the Huskers faltered in the fourth quarter and dropped a 34-31 overtime decision to Colorado. As always, some were saying the sky was falling.
The Huskers needed something to get back on track, and in stepped Northern Illinois.
Nebraska handled the Huskies fairly easily. They wracked season-high 525 yards in a 44-8 win in what could easily be called the team’s best performance under second-year head coach Scott Frost.
It’s understandable why some had been concerned. They saw what Central Florida did in Frost’s second year with the program. They might have expected more of the high-flying offense that would win games 55-48.
That’s not going to be this team. The defense will be too good for that.
The Huskers don’t have the edge rushers that Central Florida team had, but the Knights didn’t have guys like the Daniels brothers or the Davis twins on the inside.
Those guys are hard to run against.
Yes, the Huskers gave up 350 yards, but Northern Illinois ran for just 74 yards on 32 attempts.
The Huskies also ran 81 plays to just 65 for the Huskers and easily won time of possession 37:58 to 22:02. That’s further proof that sometimes time of possession is vastly overrated.
But that may be what we see this season. The Huskers are going to be a big-play team. They had scoring drives of one, four, four, five, seven and nine plays.
The time of possession on those drives was seven seconds, 1:11, 39 seconds, 39 seconds, 2:42 and 2:28.
Of course everything wasn’t perfect. You could certainly question the play call on a swing pass to Maurice Washington on the goal line that turned into a safety.
You might also wonder why the Huskers didn’t just kill the clock on their own 13 with 44 seconds left in the first half when they had a 23-5 lead.
Frost pointed toward what his coaching staff preaches day in and day out, no fear of failure.
“If we get the ball back with 40 seconds left, I want them to think score,” Frost said.
And score they did.
A 9-yard pass to Wan’Dale Robinson, an 8-yard run by quarterback Adrian Martinez, a 12-yard pass to JD Spielman and a 30-yard pass to Robinson set the stage for a 27-yard TD pass to Kanawai Noa with just five seconds left on the clock.
That’s 87 yards in 39 seconds.
“We got a lot better week one to week two,” Frost said. “We got a lot better today.”
The Huskers may not be a great inside running team this season. They are more outside oriented with guys like Maurice Washington and Robinson.
Dedrick Mills did finally show flashes of what the coaching staff saw from him in fall camp when he broke loose for a 61-yard gain in the first quarter.
The fumble at the end of the play kind of put a damper on the whole thing, but Mills finished the day with 116 yards on 11 carries (10.5 per carry) and a touchdown.
Defensively, we also saw a goal-line stand. We haven’t seen many of those in recent years..
Northern Illinois had a second-and-goal on the 2 early in the fourth quarter. Two running plays moved the ball inside the 1.
On fourth down, quarterback Ross Bowers attempted to hit Daniel Crawford on an out, but walk-on safety Eli Sullivan was there to knock the ball away.
There’s no doubt the defense has made tremendous strides. The Blackshirts have played 11 good to great quarters so far this season, with one bad quarter thrown in.
The tackling for the most part is so much better. We didn’t see too many missed tackles against Northern Illinois.
The Huskies did exploit the Huskers defense with some quick passes over the middle for short gains. That neutralized what could be a pretty good Nebraska pass rush.
Frost certainly sounded pleased with the effort, even though he said there is plenty of room for improvement.
“We did a lot of things a lot better out there today than we have the first couple of weeks and really going back a lot further than that,” Frost said.
Keep getting better, and who knows?
After last week, the mood seemed to be ominous. The Huskers let a game get away that they could have — even should have — won.
There are plenty of challenges ahead — including Ohio State in two weeks — but with the performance of the Big Ten on this Saturday, you have to think the Huskers will have a chance to win in many of those games.
“This team has a chance to keep improving and be a pretty solid team down the road if we keep getting better,” Frost said.
Bob Hamar is sports editor for The Independent.