The first half Saturday night at Memorial Stadium could easily have turned into a special-teams sideshow.
Nebraska’s other two units ensured it instead turned into a lopsided victory.
Amidst a bizarre opening 30 minutes that involved five total blocked kicks — three by visiting Northern Illinois — a botched fake punt by the Huskies, two pooch punts and an extra point made by a Husker walk-on defensive back, both Scott Frost’s offense and Erik Chinander’s defense helped the hosts overwhelm a pesky visitor from the Mid-American Conference that came to Lincoln two years ago, mucked up a game and left with a victory.
Not this night. Not after Nebraska rolled up 369 yards of offense and 30 points in the first half.
Not after the Blackshirts limited Northern Illinois and quarterback Ross Bowers to 144 first-half yards despite the Huskies running 44 plays and possessing the ball for more than 20 minutes.
In the end, Nebraska finally got the blowout win its been looking for by a count of 44-8 in front of 89,593.
"We’ve had to learn a lot of lessons as a football team, coaches and players alike, since I got to Nebraska," Frost said. "I kind of feel like we rounded a little bit of a corner."
Nebraska’s offense had a solid but unspectacular first half before it faltered when an Adrian Martinez swing pass from his own 4-yard line resulted in a safety and allowed NIU to close within 23-5.
Instead of going wayward, though, the offense bounced back forcefully.
NU’s next possession began at its own 13 with just 44 seconds remaining in the half.
Martinez found Wan’Dale Robinson for 9 on a screen pass, then ran for a first down to stop the clock. Then Martinez hit JD Spielman for 13 yards before unleashing a rocket over the middle to Robinson for 30. On the next play, he lofted a ball to the back-right corner of the end zone for Kanawai Noa, the graduate transfer wide receiver from Cal who was held without a catch in the first two games. Noa came down, tapped his left foot in bounds — an athletic move the officiating crew initially missed but overturned on replay.
Five plays, 87 yards, 37 seconds.
"I think regardless of how much time is on the clock or at any point in the game, I'm always confident in our guys and Coach Frost," Martinez said.
That’s the kind of explosive play Frost envisions becoming the norm around here.
"We preach to the guys -- and maybe I needed to get the lesson from outside and from my assistant coaches last week --we preach a desire to excel and no fear of failure all the time, and if we want the players to be that way, we need to be that way as coaches," Frost said, seemingly alluding to his conservative second-half approach against Colorado. "What we need to call, rolling the dice, letting them play, being aggressive, that's the way I want our team to think."
No matter that the Blackshirts were asked to defend 82 plays and nearly 38 minutes overall on the night. They rotated liberally, continued to patch the safety positions together after sophomore standout Cam Taylor-Britt suffered a tough-looking injury in the second quarter and held the Huskies to just 74 rushing yards.
They mounted a goal-line stand early in the fourth quarter to keep NIU off the board and surrendered just three second-half points one week after surrendering 31.
"That was great," Frost said. "The defense last week played three really good quarters and then the house of cards just kind of fell in on us."
When the offense is rolling, time of possession matters less. For instance, the Huskers had the ball for just 3:19 in the second quarter but scored 20 points nonetheless.
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First, explosive sophomore running back Maurice Washington carried the load. In the first quarter, one play after Kearney walk-on defensive back Isaiah Stalbird recorded his first of two blocked punts on the evening, Washington took a fly sweep, made a defender miss and then used a downfield block from tight end Jack Stoll to cruise in for a 21-yard touchdown and a 10-0 lead.
Later, he made an NIU defender miss badly in the backfield and turned on the jets, racing 60 yards for a touchdown that gave NU a 16-3 lead.
Then Noa started to get involved. Catchless on five targets through his first two games in Lincoln, the 6-foot flanker from Hawaii grabbed three for 51 and a touchdown in the first half.
Mix in the production that Frost is expecting -- and the Huskers are getting -- from Spielman and Robinson (76 receiving yards and 48 receiving yards, respectively) and the Huskers piled up a season-best 525 yards overall. .
The big plays helped cover up a downright loony special-teams performance in the first half, during which NU blocked two punts and stopped a fake attempt, but also saw Isaac Armstrong have two field-goal attempts and a point-after blocked.
It got bad enough that, after Noa’s touchdown in the waning seconds of the first half, walk-on safety and Norfolk native Lane McCallum -- formerly a kicker at Air Force before transferring to NU last summer -- was called on to kick the PAT.
He made it, drawing what was either a Bronx cheer or a genuinely relieved applause from the Memorial Stadium crowd, and handled the PAT duties the rest of the night.
Special teams roller coaster aside, it was as low-stress a second half as Nebraska has had in some time.
"I told the (defense), they had five (points) when we came in at halftime and they had eight when we came back in at the end of the game. That's what we expect," Frost said. "We did a lot of things a lot better out there today than we had the first couple weeks and really going back longer than that.
"It was great to see us get in control and stay there."
Dedrick Mills, the touted junior college transfer running back, had easily his best day as a Husker, rushing for 90 of his 116 yards in the first half. He galloped for 61 in the first quarter and ripped off a 24-yard scoring run in the second. Mills lost a fumble, too, in the first half, but showed the kind of big- play ability that had been missing through two weeks but Frost and company believed he had all along. Overall, Nebraska had its best rushing performance of the season, finishing with 238 yards and four scores on the ground and averaging 7.2 per carry.
Like last week, NU's offense missed an opportunity for a potential dagger in the third quarter after NIU took the third quarter's opening drive and turned it into a field goal, picking up a first down but covering just 17 yards in 2:28 before punting it back. Nebraska's defense stood tall, though, pinning the Huskies deep in their own territory and forcing a three-and-out.
On the offense's second chance, it got the job done.
Martinez hit tight end Stoll for a 27-yard gain -- and fellow tight end Austin Allen alertly jumped on the ball when Stoll fumbled it -- and then Mills went to work, churning for 11 yards on three straight carries and becoming the first back in the past 18 games to rush for 100 yards against NIU's defense.
Martinez faked to Mills again on first down, drawing the defense, but this time kept and scampered into the end zone for a 37-8 lead and complete control at the 3:00 mark of the third quarter.
For the first time this season, Nebraska was able to get plenty of second-unit players on the field in the waning minutes. There are questions -- the kicking game, the status of Taylor-Britt and left tackle Brenden Jaimes, who went down late in the game with an apparent left leg injury and had to be helped to the locker room -- but overall NU ended non-conference play on a strong note.
"We got a lot better, I think from Week 1 to Week 2 and we got a lot better today, but we still have a lot to fix," Frost said. "This is a work in progress, but this team has an opportunity to keep improving and be a pretty solid team that has a chance to win some games down the road."