LINCOLN — At one point Saturday night at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, the fresh-faced Adrian Martinez spun the football on his finger with perfect balance and evenness for a few moments after a play was blown dead.
The Husker quarterback and the offense may not have had their most even performance under second-year head coach Scott Frost, but a season-high in points (44) and yards (525) was a step forward with the Big-Ten grind starting next week at Illinois.
The Husker offense, which came into the 2019 season with high expectations following an at-times prolific 2018, was closer to what media and fans expected with an at times explosive performance against Northern Illinois.
Eight plays of 20 yards or more in the first half alone helped Husker football easily avoid another home upset loss to Northern Illinois like the one that came in 2017. That game was the Huskies’ last win over a Power-5 opponent.
“I think our mindset was right coming into this game,” Martinez said. “There were a couple of possessions there we should have converted into touchdowns but in general our offense had the right mindset.”
Nebraska scored 30 of its points in a first half that again was a bit up and down. The Huskers had the ball within the Northern Illinois 20-yard line on their first four possessions but came away with just 10 points from those opportunities.
Running back Maurice Washington provided Nebraska with an electric 60-yard touchdown run in the second quarter that put Nebraska up by three scores. The run was Washington’s second touchdown of 60 yards or more in as many weeks, after scoring on a 75-yard reception against Colorado.
Washington’s big play was a jolt the Nebraska offense needed after a blocked field goal accounted for one empty trip to the red zone.
Another early hiccup came on a fumble from Dedrick Mills the very play after he broke off an electrifying 61-yard run. Mills more than redeemed himself in the second quarter with a 24-yard touchdown run up the gut where he broke an arm tackle at the line of scrimmage and used his speed from there.
Mills led the Husker rush attack with 116 yards on 11 carries.
“One of the things we got to fix is the turnover issue,” Frost said. “Apart from that, I thought Dedrick made a step in the right direction today.”
For Mills, the goal has been to prove himself.
“(The) first couple (of) weeks, I was just rushing. Rushing the run,” he said. “In this game and in this week in practice, I really emphasized calming myself down and making the right cuts.”
Anyone hoping for dual-threat Martinez to run wild will have to wait another week as the quarterback run game never got rolling. The staff called Martinez number six times in the first half, gaining 10 yards with a long of eight. Martinez’s carries have dropped from 19 in Week 1 vs. South Alabama, to 13 in the loss to Colorado now 11 total against the Huskies. Ultimately, Martinez scored on a 10-yard zone-read play in the third quarter and later scrambled to convert a fourth down.
Through the air, however, Martinez did make the throws the touted true sophomore is capable of. After clearly missing on his first two dropbacks, Martinez settled in and completed seven of his next eight. He found a new receiver as well, giving senior Kanawai Noa his first career catches.
Of course, Martinez found his main target in JD Spielman for gainers of 41, 19, 13 and 3 yards. He also had key completions to speedster Wan’Dale Robinson. One of those completions to Robinson was strike downfield that went for 30 yards as time in the first half wound down.
Noa notched his first touchdown catch, a 27-yarder, on the ensuing play. Noa was initially ruled out of bounds but the replay revealed a foot down in bounds and perfectly placed ball from Martinez.
“I don’t know if you guys caught it but I lifted Noa up in the air. I hope someone caught that,” Martinez said. “I was just super excited for him. I don’t think he could have had a better drive than he did. He made all the right decisions and I’m just happy for him.”
The score put Nebraska up 30-5 at the break, the most points scored in a half since last season’s win against Illinois (five games). The Huskers’ 369 first-half yards nearly eclipsed their early-season average of 372 per game.
Martinez finished 16 of 27 with 257 yards and two touchdowns. Saturday’s contest was his fifth college game with no interceptions and his first since last October in a loss to Wisconsin. He had his ninth game of 300 or more total yards, which is already second all-time in Nebraska history.
“Adrian is going to keep getting better, too,” Frost said. “As good a year as he’s had last year, you still forget he’s a true sophomore. There (are) still some things he needs to learn but he’s a really good player.
“We still need to execute on offense, particularly when we get a turnover. They’re a really disruptive defense just because of the nature of defense they play...If you watch some of their tape, they had a lot of (tackles for loss) and disruptive plays against their first two opponents.”
Fear not if the 2019 Husker offense hasn’t had the smoothest ride. Nebraska put a season-high 54 points a year ago on Lovie Smith’s Fighting Illini and another season-best offensive performance could be at the Fighting Illini’s door if Nebraska can continue to make strides, explained Martinez.
“I think tonight was a great building block heading into Big Ten (play),” he said. “I think the rest of the guys realize it’s time for conference play and to keep chugging along. I wouldn’t say our mindset even changes. Like I said earlier, keep on building off what we’ve been doing in practice and games each week and we’re going to be the team we want to be.”