Northern Illinois vs. Nebraska, 9/16/17

Northern Illinois cornerback Albert Smalls (1) waves to the Husky fans after a 21-17 defeat of Nebraska at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

It took three big plays and a concerted defensive effort for Northern Illinois to walk out of Memorial Stadium with 21-17 win over Nebraska.

While it's an upset, the first time Nebraska has ever lost to a Mid-American Conference team, the win over a Big Ten team was nothing new for Huskies coach Rod Carey, who is now 4-1 against the Big Ten in his five seasons.

"In the grand scheme of things, it's one game," Carey said. "We've been here before in a situation like this. We're 2-1, that's all it means. Are we going to enjoy it for 24 hours? You bet."

Carey's we're-used-to-this take was echoed by his players, including cornerback Shawun Lurry.

"We feel like we can play with anyone, play ball no matter where we're at, no matter where we go," said Lurry, who was responsible for the first big play, jumping in front of De'Mornay Pierson-El, picking off Tanner Lee's pass and sprinting 87 yards to the end zone to put Northern Illinois up 7-0 less than four minutes into the game.

"We had a great game plan for this week, watching a lot of film on them," Lurry said. "They run a lot of bubbles (screens), so something just told me to jump it and I just jumped it. Results happen."

"Good instincts and preparation," Carey chimed in.

Big play No. 2 came with 1:13 remaining in the first quarter when linebacker Jawuan Johnson caught an errant Lee pass and scored from 25 yards out to give Northern Illinois a 14-0 lead.

Records were not immediately available to determine if Northern Illinois had ever returned two interceptions for touchdowns in a single game. But it has not happened in the past decade.

Johnson's interception came because Lee was hit by defensive end Drequan Brown as he threw the ball. The Northern Illinois defensively line put pressure on the Nebraska quarterback all game.

"All we did this week was prepare to go fast," said defensive end Sutton Smith, who had four tackles for loss. "The faster we go, good things are going to happen. That's what the coaches were emphasizing this week — read your keys and play as fast as you can. They're a pro-style offense, so the quarterback is going to sit."

That defensive effort, Carey said, carried Northern Illinois.

"Defensively, it set the tone for the entire team the entire day," Carey said. "The defense got us out to a 14-0 lead and we really just fed off that defensive energy. Even when things started to turn there and they got 17 back on us to take the lead, there was never a panic in the defense. They got tired. That's because the offense couldn't stay on the field there for a minute. But then as soon as the offense came back and took the lead back, I think the defense fed off it again and we followed their lead."

The Nebraska comeback set the stage for the Huskies' final big play — a 47-yard bomb from quarterback Daniel Santacaterina to wideout Christian Blake on the first play after Nebraska had taken the lead.

Five plays later, tailback Jordan Huff went over left tackle to give Northern Illinois the game-clinching touchdown.

"It got me into a rhythm, for sure," Santacaterina said of the big throw. "I think we definitely needed that offensively. It got us going. We finished that drive with a touchdown. I kept telling the defense on the sideline, 'We're going to get one, we're going to get one, keep going out there, keep doing your thing.' We didn't flinch. We were ready to go. We were down 17-14. We knew we were going to go win. We were very confident. We went and did that."

The Huskies did it in front of a crowd of 89,664 in an environment that can be intimidating. But not to Northern Illinois.

"This is not our first time in front of 90,000 people," Lurry said. "Two years ago, we played Ohio State. We knew what to do, what to come in here and do and come out and get the win. We made more plays than they did and got the 'W.'"

After a few minutes in the locker room after the game, the Huskies returned to the field, piling into the southwest end zone, in front of a couple of dozen Northern Illinois fans lingering in the stands.

Cameras came out, from fans, players and the media. But the end zone photo wasn't intended to disrespect Nebraska or celebrate on the Huskers home field.

"The offensive guys wanted to go out and get with the fans,' Carey said. "We were excited. We ran off the field and our fans were right there. By the time we got back out there, they were all gone. So we decided, impromptu, to take a picture and give the fans a chance to take a picture, too. That's all was.

"When we've had other victories, we've gone out to our fans and greeted them. I think in the excitement today, we just didn't. That's probably my fault. We should have gone there right away."

Asked how he would celebrate the win, Carey replied:

"We've got a bye week. I think I'm breaking an NCAA rule because we had the schedule set and we were going to work tomorrow. I gave them the day off."

That generated applause from the four players that were seated on either side of the coach, who learned of the day off when he said it.

"That's almost as good as a 'W,'" Santacaterina said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSWolgamott.


Entertainment reporter/columnist

L. Kent Wolgamott is an entertainment reporter and columnist.

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