NIU at Nebraska: 3 things to watch

Northern Illinois' Nevaeh Sanders gets pressure on Southern Illinois quarterback Nic Baker during their game Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, in Huskie Stadium at NIU in DeKalb.

The NIU football team followed a win against a Power Five school in Week 1 with a home loss to an FCS team in Week 2.

Now in Week 3, the Huskies will look to win at Memorial Stadium for the second time in their past three appearances as they take on Nebraska (0-2). They’ll be trying to put Saturday’s 14-11 loss to Southern Illinois behind them.

The game kicks off at 6 p.m. Saturday on FS1. Here are three things to watch as the Huskies look to duplicate the success of a 21-17 win in 2017 and not a 44-8 loss in 2019, coach Thomas Hammock’s first season.

1. Getting better offensive line play

For the past two season, the Huskies have been in the top 10 nationally in sacks allowed. The 12 they surrendered last year was seventh best, and in 2021 they were second with 11 sacks allowed.

They gave up four Saturday.

“Last week it was a lot of stunts and angles that caused problems with us up front,” Hammock said. “They blitzed a lot of guys downhill, and that caused some problems. And we’ve got to clean that up, because what you put on tape is what you continue to see.”

Hammock also said it’s a misconception that sacks are always the fault of the offensive line, saying the running back blocking caused the first sack NIU allowed. He said the team is committed to getting quarterback Rocky Lombardi and the passing game going.

Lombardi completed 23 of 38 passes for 297 yards. He also threw three interceptions.

“We want to throw the football,” Hammock said. “We’ve thrown the ball more than we have in the past, and we’ll continue to do so. But we have to get the quarterback time to throw the football. And if you throw the ball with efficiency, people will stop doing some of those things.”

2. Defense looks to keep hot streak alive

Considering the Huskies were outside of the top 100 in a lot of key defensive categories last year, the team is surging this year. They are 27th in total defense, allowing 266.5 yards per game. They are 28th in passing yards allowed (158), 27th in first downs allowed and 28th in sacks.

“We haven’t forgotten we haven’t been the best defensively in the past,” said defensive lineman Cade Haberman said. “Seeing people tell us how bad we are, that just rubbed us the wrong way. Now we’ve grown up. We love playing for each other. What coach [Nick] Benedetto and the rest of that defensive staff are doing, people are passionate to play for each other.”

Hammock credited the turnaround to the defensive coaching staff, which includes Benedetto. He came to the program as co-defensive coordinator last year. The staff also has two new assistants, linebackers coach Adam Berske and cornerbacks coach D.J. Bland.

“The thing is, we didn’t add any new players on our defense, they are executing,” Hammock said. “That’s a testament to the coaching staff. ... Those guys have gotten those guys to play at a high level. And that’s what we have to strive for on offense. We have to play at that high level.”

3. Getting the run game going

As part of the overall offensive struggles that caused the Huskies to score only 11 points in the loss, the Huskies managed 1.9 yards per carry. Antario Brown had 22 carries for 59 yards.

NIU is 102nd nationally in rushing offense, averaging 114.5 yards per game.

“We’re not going to keep banging our head against the wall, I can promise you that,” Hammock said. “We have to find a way to get the run game going. I don’t care what it looks like. We have to take pressure off the quarterback.

“We might have to get speed in space. We have to do some things differently. We have to be more balanced. We may need to throw to set up the run, and that’s fine. Whatever it takes to play better and more efficient on offense, we’re going to try to do.”

Prediction: NIU 27, Nebraska 21

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