Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

Northern Illinois vs. Nebraska, 9/16/17

Nebraska wide receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El can't control the ball as Northern Illinois safety Mykelti Williams (8) defends on the play in fourth-quarter action Saturday at Memorial Stadium.


Nebraska failed to pick up a first down on an early third-and-2, with Mikale Wilbon gaining a yard. That was a sign of things to come. The line's push often was weak. Wilbon, though, runs low and hard and did a good job getting yards after contact. Good to get the fullback, Luke McNitt, involved. He bulled forward for 4 yards on a third-and-1. But there were painfully few bright spots.


When cornerback Shawun Lurry snared Tanner Lee's pass on a bubble screen on Nebraska's opening drive — and returned the interception 87 yards for a touchdown — you figured the day might be a long one for the home team. That was confirmed later in the first quarter, when Lee, under pressure, threw his second pick-six. Pass blocking was shoddy. That said, Lee misfired to open receivers on what could have been big plays. He also locked in hard on receivers. As for the receivers, there were key drops.


Nebraska held up well most of the day, though NIU's line got some push in the game's late stages. Jordan Huff rushed 16 times for 105 yards — 6.6 per carry.


Nebraska's pass rush showed improvement. The Huskers had two sacks, including one on a crucial third-and-6 in the fourth quarter as defensive coordinator Bob Diaco calling for a five-man rush. Good move. The Huskers, however, allowed a 47-yard completion right after taking a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter. That was a killer.


Nebraska caught a break when Marquel Dismuke recovered the ball at NIU's 2 after a botched punt return. Also, credit JD Spielman, who sped 50 yards with a first-quarter kickoff return. But there were many issues. De'Mornay Pierson-El let a punt roll to the 1-yard line that he could have fielded at the 12. Pierson-El is showing a surprising amount of indecision and hesitancy considering he's a senior. In defense of Pierson-El, Nebraska doesn't do a great job of slowing the punt team's gunners. If all that weren't bad enough, Drew Brown's field-goal attempt was blocked to end the first half.


Flags on Nebraska started flying in the first quarter as the Huskers were trying to build some semblance of momentum. There was a holding, an illegal block in the back, a false start. Mike Riley had to be seething. Then there was the second-quarter play on which the Huskers broke the huddle with 5 seconds on the play clock, forcing a timeout. They burned yet another timeout before halftime when there was obvious confusion getting a play called.


I had no problem with the call for a bubble screen on second-and-3 at NIU's 10 on the opening drive. The corner simply made a great play. With poor blocking much of the time, it was difficult for Nebraska's offense to find rhythm. But a portion of that blame goes to play-caller Danny Langsdorf. What's with the shotgun formations on second-and-2 and third-and-2 late in the third quarter?


Nebraska's defensive performance keeps this from being an "F." But, as athletic director Shawn Eichorst said, the loss is unacceptable.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.


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