Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Know The Foe: A Closer Look at NIU

By Brian Rosenthal

A reporter asked Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey if perhaps his Huskies were catching Nebraska at the right time – early in the season before the Huskers iron out some kinks and find a groove.

Carey wasn’t biting.

“You’re going to Nebraska, one of the blue-blood programs in college football, one of the best atmospheres that you can possibly play in, and they’re a good football team,” he said. “So, I don’t know if there is ever such a thing as a good time. It’s going to be an unbelievable challenge, and I know our guys are excited for it.”

Northern Illinois (1-1) comes to Lincoln on Saturday for its first road game of the season before an NCAA record 356th consecutive sold out crowd at Memorial Stadium.

“I’ve never coached there, and I got recruited by them out of high school by Coach (Tom) Osborne but never actually made an official visit there,” Carey said. “I’m excited.”

Osborne was coach the last time these teams met in 1989 and 1990. Both games were in Lincoln, and both were blowouts.

Now, Mike Riley is in his third season coaching Nebraska.

“He’s probably one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life,” Carey said. “I have a lot of respect for him as a football coach, and as a person. His football team is well-coached. They're in year three of their system offensively, and it shows. They are very good at it.”

Northern Illinois has established itself as a force among programs from the Group of Five FBS conferences. The Huskies rose to No. 15 in the 2012 Bowl Championship Series rankings and qualified for the Orange Bowl, where they lost to Florida State.

Carey took over the following season and led the Huskies to records of 12-2 and 11-3 in his first two seasons, although Northern Illinois slipped to 8-6 in 2015, and is now trying to rebuild after a 5-7 finish last season.

Don’t expect the Huskies to be intimidated Saturday, though. They’ve won five of their last nine games against Big Ten teams, including three straight against Iowa, Purdue and Northwestern before a 20-13 loss to No.1 Ohio State in 2015.

 

The Huskies on Offense

Quarterback Ryan Graham is hurt and won’t play, so sophomore Daniel Santacaterina will start Saturday.

Carey made that announcement early in the week, so Santacaterina will have had ample time to focus on making his third career start.

“It’s the next man up,” NIU lineman Ryan Roberts said. “We prepare every week, and I know Santa does. I know every backup does, because if you don’t, then if something goes down, you never know what’s going to happen.

“That’s why I think NIU has so much success with our back-ups; any adversity we face, we’re preparing for adversity. We prepare for the worst situation, not the best, so Santacaterina, I know is going to go out there and play his butt off.”

Santacaterina started last week, too, and competed 23 of 34 passes for 252 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-10 victory over Eastern Illinois. He leads an offense that will look similar to what the Blackshirts have faced in the first two games against Arkansas State and Oregon.

“They’ve gone to a lot of spread stuff with the fly-sweep, with the run off of the fly-sweep, with the quarterback run off of the fly sweep, with the faking all that, and throwing what we’ve been getting a dose of all week, the bubble screen, smoke routes to the outside receivers,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “It looks like some more of that.”

Receiver D.J. Brown (10) is the Huskies’ main weapon on the fly sweep. He has nine receptions in two games for 119 yards. But NIU could be without its top receiver, Chad Beebe, the son of former Buffalo Bills and Chadron State receiver Don Beebe.

“He has a concussion and then he has an AC sprain in his shoulder, which is probably the thing, because you don't know with concussions how quick they will go away,” Carey said. “Talking to him (Monday), he seemed a lot better in the concussion area and you have to let that take its course, but probably the shoulder will be the thing that will be more limiting for the three- to four-week time window than the head now.”

Nebraska, meanwhile, will be without safety Joshua Kalu, who’s been ruled out because of a hamstring, Riley said Thursday.

 

The Huskies on Defense

NIU will play a 4-3 defense with quarters coverage and bring an athletic, fast unit to Lincoln that plays hard.

Nebraska must account at all times for defensive end Sutton Smith (15), who had five tackles for loss in his first career start against Boston College, and caused and recovered a fumble, broke up a pass and collected three tackles against Eastern Illinois.

WILL linebacker Jawuan Johnson (7) will spread out on Nebraska’s receivers while also coming into the box to play, and All-American cornerback Shawun Lurry (19) led the nation with nine interceptions last season as a sophomore. He was the only first team or second team All-American not from a Power Five conference team.

Also, middle linebacker Kyle Pugh (57), who entered the season with zero career tackles, collected 17 against Boston College. He also had an interception.

NIU held Eastern Illinois to 187 total yards – 60 rushing, 127 passing – and the Huskies have forced four turnovers in two games, converting three of them into points. In a 23-20 loss to Boston College, the Huskies had 12 tackles for 39 yards lost.

Nebraska will be without running back Tre Bryant, who’s been ruled out because of a knee injury, Riley said. Junior Mikale Wilbon will start in place of Bryant, who’s rushed 51 times in two games for 299 yards.

Also, look for redshirted freshman Matt Farniok to make his second career start at right tackle in place of senior David Knevel, who’s out with a foot/ankle injury.

The Huskies on Special Teams

Senior kicker Christian Hagan is the lone Nebraskan on the NIU roster. The Omaha Westside graduate ranks ninth all-time in scoring at NIU with 238 career points. Hagan is 3-of-6 on field goals, with a long make of 32 yards, and misses from 39, 39 and 30, including one block against Eastern Illnois.

Punter Matt Ference has punted 12 times in two games, for an average of 41 yards, with a long of 51 yards. He’s pinned three punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

Christian Blake has six kickoff returns, his two longest covering 34 and 23 yards. NIU hasn’t allowed a punt return for a touchdown since 2009, or a kickoff return for a touchdown since 2014.

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

 

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