As a stunned crowd filed out of Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon, scenes at either end of the storied Nebraska football venue — playing out within minutes of each other — carried the gravity of the Huskers’ current state of affairs.
In the southwest corner of Tom Osborne Field, Northern Illinois players celebrated a 21-17 victory that they controlled for all but a few moments despite being outgained by 170 yards and outmatched by multitudes in resources, support and expectations.
Moments later, in a wing off the field's northeast corner, Shawn Eichorst stood at the middle of about 50 reporters, fielding questions about the hows and the whys, perhaps the first time the Nebraska athletic director has made himself available for postgame interviews here.
“I don’t think there’s any question that it’s not acceptable,” Eichorst said. “Frustration, anger, disappointment, you go through all those emotions in tough times and when you’re around these good people and good young men, certainly you think about that and how to lead. It’s easy to lead when things are going well, but when you have adversity, you have to stand up and do the right things all the time.”
He spoke shortly after the Huskers dug themselves too deep a hole for the second straight week.
This time, the NU offense took the lead role with the shovel.
This time, defeat came not on the road against a potent roster stacked with high-end talent, but rather in the friendly, cavernous confines of home and at the hands of a Midwest mid-major picked to finish in the middle of its Mid-American Conference division.
“All of this will sound like an understatement,” head coach Mike Riley said to open his postgame remarks, “but we are just really, bitterly disappointed with losing the game.”
Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee had a pair of first-quarter interceptions returned for touchdowns, the offense struggled to produce throughout, and when the Huskers did finally take a lead early in the fourth quarter, the Huskies promptly drove down the field and took it right back, silencing an announced crowd of 89,664 but for a smattering of boos as the school’s first loss in history against the MAC became inevitable.
"We have to prove more about who we are, for sure," Riley said. "We've been, I would say, inconsistent at best. I mean, that's probably not even accurate, but that's been us, and I don't like that."
NU’s final drive stood as a microcosm of its struggles.
Junior tailback Mikale Wilbon, starting for injured sophomore Tre Bryant, gained 4 yards on a draw to his own 24-yard line with 3 minutes, 9 seconds remaining. Lee felt pressure on second down and was dropped for no gain before NIU’s Sutton Smith whipped past right tackle Matt Farniok and sacked Lee to bring up fourth-and-14. Lee surveyed, was pressured for the third consecutive play and threw the ball right to NIU linebacker Josh Corcoran, sealing the Huskers’ fate.
It was Lee’s third interception on the day — his first two were returned for first-quarter touchdowns and stood as the game’s only points into the third quarter — and his seventh in the span of two losses that have left this program searching for answers.
Just two weeks ago, standing at the same podium after a skin-of-their-teeth opening victory against Arkansas State, Riley said he thought his offense could score every time it had the ball.
Now, there are doubts.
“I felt like we had that capability, that we can be that team that can run the ball, throw the ball, play-action pass,” he said, “But, boy, oh, boy, we’re so far from that I can’t even hint at that at this point. I was wrong. I was wrong, so we’ve got a lot of work to get back to.”
The Huskers marched right down the field on their first drive, but Huskies cornerback Shawun Lurry jumped an attempted bubble screen and raced 87 yards to the end zone, flipping the feel of the game just 3:36 in.
NU’s next eight drives yielded five three-and-outs, another interception returned for a touchdown, a blocked field goal and less than 3.4 yards per play (43 snaps).
NIU’s defensive interior dominated the Huskers’ interior line while Smith recorded two of the Huskies’ three sacks. His defense also hurried Lee seven other times and racked up nine tackles for loss that moved NU back 37 yards.
“Probably a total combination of, whether or it was just getting beat or being confused, it was both,” Riley said of his offensive line’s performance. “We’re not consistent enough in any part of our offense — running, blocking, making plays — so we couldn’t recover from giving them two touchdowns at the end.”
The Blackshirts, though, gave the offense ample opportunity to iron out its issues. Bob Diaco’s defense carried a shutout into the fourth quarter, racking up seven forced punts and a missed field goal.
Then NU’s punt coverage team set up the hosts’ first score when Marquel Dismuke recovered a muffed punt at the Huskies’ 2. Two plays later — Wilbon was blown up in the backfield thanks to interior penetration on first down — Lee scampered in from 4 yards midway through the third quarter.
Drew Brown added a field goal late in the frame and Lee scored again on a sneak with 8:52 to go as the defense continued to hold, and it appeared as if the two-touchdown favorites might survive to learn again from a close home win rather than a rattling defeat.
Instead, NIU quarterback Daniel Santacaterina, marginally accurate most of the day, lofted a perfect deep ball to Christian Blake for 47 yards past cornerback Eric Lee up the right sideline on the Huskies’ first play of the ensuing drive, the kind of counterpunch Nebraska lacked all afternoon.
Five plays later, Jordan Huff (16 carries, 105 yards) plunged in from 2 yards and reclaimed the lead.
“The bottom line is we had a lead and an opportunity to leave the field and we didn’t make it happen,” defensive lineman Mick Stoltenberg said. “We’ve been there before when the chips were down and guys were ready to play. It obviously didn’t go our way.”
The Huskers' offense had two more possessions. The same mistakes that plagued them the opening 51 minutes continued for the final nine.
“I don’t know that I need to put the finger on anybody,” Riley said. “Our results on offense speak for themselves. It was a very disappointing effort and we play as a unit. It was evident on the pressure on the quarterback. It was also evident that we didn’t really run the ball consistently, either.
“We have to stick together, and the other thing is that there is no way out of a hole like this without working. The ability to kind of get to Monday so that we can start to get better is kind of the theme right now.”
That, and it seems clear the loss had a reverberating effect.
“Nobody’s feeling sorry for anybody,” Eichorst said. “There’s no excuses to be made. We will work hard and hunker down and provide great leadership. I will provide leadership as I have up to this point and continue to stay positive and I’m very, very optimistic about what we have. We need to stay together and continue to make progress, but you have to win games.
“That’s what we’re here to do and we didn’t get that done today.”