LINCOLN — After a disappointing fourth quarter in Boulder, Colorado, last week, the Nebraska defense regrouped and turned in a standout performance in the Huskers’ 44-8 romp of Northern Illinois on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
They thought about that fourth quarter most of the week in practice.
“We talked about (playing four quarters) all week,” said senior outside linebacker Alex Davis. “We thought last week we played great football for three quarters and then in the fourth quarter we let it die off.
“We talked about all week how we wanted to play four quarters and not let up. I feel like we really did that, but I feel like we still have a lot to prove.”
The Blackshirts were on point from the beginning, but the most fun they had was early in the fourth quarter with the Huskies staring down the end zone after marching 73 yards to the Nebraska 2. But, on two consecutive plays, Will Honas and Damion Daniels stopped Northern Illinois running back Tre Harbison at the goal line.
On fourth down, the Huskies tried a pass in the flat that was broken up by Eli Sullivan.
“They could have ran it on that play, but they didn’t,” said Husker defensive tackle Carlos Davis. “And I think that says a lot about our defense.”
The Huskers relied on a game plan that has fared well in 11 of 12 quarters in the non-conference schedule — stop the run and force the opponent into a one-dimensional game. On Saturday night, the Huskies managed just 74 net yards rushing on 32 attempts.
“I think last week we played three really good quarters of defense,” Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said. “We felt like this week in practice we rounded a corner. That goal line stand was kind of a symbol of what was happening in practice.”
The Huskers didn’t allow a touchdown for the second time in Frost’s tenure as the Huskies managed just a pair of field goals.
They did the same in last season’s 9-6 win over Michigan State.
Nebraska linebacker Mohamed Barry, who led the defense with 10 tackles, said the physicality of the game — especially that goal line stand — felt like a Big Ten contest that the Huskers will be ready for when they travel to Illinois next week.
“It was Big Ten football,” Barry said of the stop. “It’s great to have that before Big Ten play. Fourth-and-1 and to hold them. That is when we want to be on to be on the field . We have to have the offenses back. You have to want to be on the field.
“When it’s our call to put out the fire we have to want it, we have to want to be out there.”
The Huskers also got a big advantage with their punt coverage team on Saturday night. Kearney walk-on Isaiah Stalbird tackled Huskie punter Matt Ference on Northern Illinois’ second possession that forced a fumble that was recovered by Aurora graduate Austin Allen. It set up Maurice Washington’s 21-yard catch-and-run on the ensuing play.
Later, in the second quarter, Stalbird blocked another punt that went into Allen’s hand and looked like a sure touchdown, but he bobbled the ball out of bounds.
“We think our punt team can change the momentum of the game,” Allen said. “Whether that’s JD (Spielman) in the back or us up front. Tonight it was our turn. We saw that they had some big gaps and thought we could get pressure up the middle.”
He could joke about the bobble after the win.
“I had a chance and missed it, that’s for sure,” he said.
Davis said the Huskers must reset now and get ready for a rugged Big Ten schedule.
“Our goal is the same every week,” he said. “It’s the same every week. Go out there and keep points off the board. We feel like this defensive is ready to go and more hungry.”