Cornhuskers say they're on high alert for Northern Illinois
By ERIC OLSON
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) An uninspired win over South Alabama and a devastating overtime loss at Colorado have made Saturday night's game against Northern Illinois a big one for Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers (1-1) have yet to put together a complete game, and they're facing a Mid-American Conference opponent that has a knack for knocking off Power Five conference teams.
Nebraska was one of the Huskies' victims two years ago. Northern Illinois (1-1) beat the Huskers 21-17 to become the first team from a Group of Five conference to win in Lincoln in 15 years.
"They put our face in the mud," cornerback DiCaprio Bootle said, "and we weren't happy. That's something to be mindful of."
The loss was the tipping point for the firing of athletic director Shawn Eichorst five days later. It also spelled the beginning of the end for coach Mike Riley, who was fired after a 4-8 season, and led to the hiring of Scott Frost.
"When I look back on that loss, I think about how we didn't give them the respect that they deserved," linebacker Mohamed Barry said. "I feel like practice was very loose that week and that people were like `Oh it's the Sun Belt Conference or whatever, we're going to beat them, we're going to dust them, we can play relaxed football, we should beat them by 40.'
"Every team we're facing this year," Barry added, "we're going to give them the respect that they deserve like they're the best team. That's how we're preparing for NIU."
Northern Illinois first-year coach Thomas Hammock, who took over after Rod Carey left for Temple, said the Huskies held up well in front of 46,000 rowdy fans in a 35-17 loss at No. 11 Utah last week.
Hammock visited 90,000-seat Memorial Stadium when he was running backs coach at Wisconsin in 2012. He said the 18 NIU players who appeared in the 2017 game can fall back on their experience in Lincoln. The players who weren't there two years ago will be filled in about what awaits.
"I can certainly explain to our team what type of environment they're walking into," Hammock said. "I know Nebraska will be a lot louder at night. But I think we have confidence to go in there and play our best game."
WHATEVER YOU SAY, COACH
Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez said he had no problem with Frost's play-calling in overtime against Colorado. Frost went conservative, calling two straight run plays before Martinez took a sack, and the Huskers missed the tying field goal. After the game, Frost said he didn't want to risk an interception.
"Whatever he is calling, I know there is a thought process behind it and one that I side with," Martinez said. "I trust him as a play-caller and what he is calling and it is my job to execute it."
LET'S SPREAD IT AROUND
Only five Nebraska players have more than one reception through two games. Of nine wide receivers on the depth chart, only three have a catch.
"It's my job to spread the ball around, and I go through my reads or progressions and I throw to the open guy," Martinez said. "I wouldn't say it is something that is intentional on my part, but it needs to be made a point to get some other guys involved, too."
Nebraska is averaging 138 yards rushing per game and 3.1 per carry. Last season those averages were 209 and 5.4. Dedrick Mills, the primary between-the-tackles runner, is at just under 3 yards per carry.
"I'm not doing as good as I can do," Mills said. "Basically, I'm not seeing holes I know that are there, or I'm not seeing them early enough."
NIU quarterback Ross Bowers used to throw passes to Nebraska receiver Kanawai Noa. Both are graduate transfers from California. Bowers was the Pac-12's fourth-leading passer as Cal's starter in 2017. Noa was the Pac-12's sixth-leading receiver with 56 catches for 788 yards. Nebraska defensive line coach Tony Tuioti knows Bowers. He was a Cal assistant in 2017-18. Also, NIU linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis and Nebraska linebacker Alex Davis are first cousins.
ANOTHER POWER FIVE FOE
Northern Illinois is in a stretch of three straight road games against Power Five opponents. After an open date next week, the Huskies play at Vanderbilt. NIU has eight wins over Power Five teams since 2009.
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Updated September 13, 2019