LINCOLN, Neb. — Northern Illinois is now 4 for 5 against the Big Ten under coach Rod Carey, so if you were looking for shocked expressions after the Huskies’ 21-17 upset of Nebraska, you had to go to the Cornhuskers’ locker room.
There was a bit of a been-there, done-that air about what the Huskies pulled off at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Yes, the Huskies returned for a curtain call after the game and lined up to take a picture in front of their remaining fans in the corner of the southwest end zone.
But beating Nebraska isn’t what it used to be. The intimidation factor for visitors to one of college football’s great cathedrals has faded as the glory years of the 1990s become more distant.
“We feel like we can play with anyone, play ball no matter where we’re at, no matter where we go,” said cornerback Shawun Lurry, who returned the first of the Huskies’ two interceptions for touchdowns.
“It’s a good win. But next-game mentality,” said defensive end Sutton Smith, who had two of the Huskies’ three sacks of Tanner Lee and four of his team’s nine tackles for losses. “We’ve got 24 hours to celebrate. It was a good matchup between us and them. Now we’ve just got to put our foot on the gas for the next opponent.”
Jordan Huff scored the winning touchdown on a 2-yard run with 8:52 left, and the Huskies (2-1) became the first team not in a Power Five conference or major independent to win in Lincoln since Southern Mississippi knocked off the Cornhuskers in 2004. They join eight other unranked-at-the-time Power Five or major independent teams to win at Nebraska since 2012.
Nebraska (1-2) had two chances with the ball after Northern Illinois went ahead. But Mycial Allen broke up a pass on fourth-and-7, and Lee threw his third interception of the game, allowing the Huskies to go into victory formation with 1:36 left.
“In the grand scheme of things, it is 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.”
The Huskies, of the Mid-American Conference, led 14-0 on those interception returns before Nebraska found a semblance of offense. Nebraska was held scoreless in the first half at home for the first time since 2007.
The Huskers have lost two of their first three for the second time in three years under Mike Riley. They had a close call against Arkansas State in their opener, got blown out in the first half of a 42-35 loss at Oregon last week, and now this.
“We have to prove who we are,” Riley said. “We’ve been, I would say, inconsistent at best. That’s not even probably accurate. That’s been us, and I don’t like that.”
The stunning loss brought athletic director Shawn Eichorst to the postgame interview area, where he assured reporters that he has confidence in Riley. This week, Nebraska announced it had given Riley a one-year contract extension, through the 2020 season.
“I’m angry, I’m frustrated, I’m disappointed,” Eichorst said. “At the end of the day we have to stay together. It’s still early in the season and we need to find ways to win games like this. I want to continue to show our support, but I also understand there is a lot of frustration out there when you don’t win games like today.
“I want to make sure folks understand we’ve got to get that fixed and we have to get heading in the right direction, and we have the right coach to do it. But we have to get going.”
Northern Illinois: The Huskies came into Memorial Stadium confident they could win, and they capitalized on Nebraska’s inept offense in the first half. Add this win to the ones Northern Illinois has posted over Iowa, Purdue and Northwestern since 2013. Don’t sleep on the Huskies, who were picked third in the MAC West.
Nebraska: This one will smart. In addition to the boos, a good number of fans left at halftime and didn’t come back. This one wasn’t on Bob Diaco’s defense. Lee has thrown a national-high seven interceptions in three games.
Northern Illinois hasn’t returned two interceptions for touchdowns in a game in at least 10 years. The NIU sports information staff didn’t have access to records prior to that. Nebraska had two interceptions returned for a touchdown by Ohio State last season and by Colorado in 1967.
On Nebraska’s opening possession, Shawun Lurry jumped in front of De’Mornay Pierson-El on a bubble screen for an interception and ran 87 yards untouched for NIU’s first score.
“We had five days to watch film on them. They run a lot of bubbles, so something just told me to jump it and I just jumped it,” Lurry said. “Results happen.”
Later in the first quarter, Jawuan Johnson caught a floater after Lee got hit by Drequan Brown and returned it 25 yards to make it 14-0.
“We are going to keep busting our tails. There is a sense of urgency, and the standard here has not changed.” — Nebraska linebacker Luke Gifford.
Northern Illinois closes nonconference play with a trip to San Diego State.
Nebraska opens Big Ten play at home against Rutgers.