Recap 2023: Northern Illinois

The huge story was the injury to Jeff Sims which paved the way for Henrich Haarberg to start in the home opener for the Cornhuskers. HH is the first in-state scholarship QB for the Huskers since 2001 (Mike McLaughlin) which is just a crazy stat to think about when you think of the kind of play we’ve had around here. Chubba Purdy is still dealing with a slight groin issue, but Haarberg did not disappoint.

And he did plenty to show he wasn’t just an in-state kid that got gifted a scholarship. He was 14/24 for 158 yards, 2 touchdowns and 0 INTs. He also led our team in rushing with 21 carries for 98 yards and a touchdown. And the first play of the game showed that Satterfield was going to do what he could to call plays to HH’s strengths, as the power option went for 5 yards keeping the Huskers in front of the chains. And against what I would have done, the OC called a play-action on 2nd and 5 with 2 TEs in the game where HH showed he does have some throwing ability.

Let’s get into a couple things here… Haarberg isn’t quite the runner that Sims is, but he’s freaking really close. I think the dropoff is minimal, and the throwing seems to possibly lend its hand to Haarberg (tough to tell with Northern Illinois). But if HH only has one turnover which wasn’t his fault while Sims is basically directly responsible for 7 in 2 games, it’s tough to deny. The other thing people have brought up is the side-arm throws HH does, and I know QB coaches like @LockedInQB teach that nowadays… will be interesting to see how quickly a throw happens that gets batted down due to that arm slot. More on the QB battle later.

I also really liked Satterfield just going with QB sneaks on 2nd and 1 a few times, don’t overthink things let’s get the first down and move on. With that said, would be nice if we could line up and hand it off to do that, but with Ervin and Johnson now out, we may need to keep our RBs fresh too.

With Johnson and Ervin Jr now out, our first touchdown may be something we see a bit more of, as Kemp lined up in the backfield. I will mention this later, but I brought up our LBs matching up with Colorado RBs… Northern Illinois had a linebacker trying to chase down Billy Kemp IV and it wasn’t going to work:

Fidone actually blocks the guy chasing him a bit (which is legal since it was behind the LOS) but that guy wasn’t catching up. With that on film now, I expect defensive coordinators to just bring in their nickel or safety covering Kemp to the box, because we aren’t running him up the gut.

Our offense wasn’t without issues though… we had to call a timeout first play of the game because we didn’t know what the formation was. And for some reason after our defense holds the Huskies and forces a punt, on the second possession we do a reverse for a five yard loss then give up a sack for our only turnover of the game. I for sure was thinking “here we go again” as our defense probably was, but they stood tall and held them to a fieldgoal.

The other thing i’ll point out is the fact that our QB once again led our team in rushes. That just isn’t sustainable at this level of football. I’m not trying to be doom and gloom, but somehow we have to find ways for other people to do that. 21 rushing attempts by our QB, 14 by Ervin Jr, then 7 by Grant. It reminds me of our 2021 offense where I was telling people it’s really troubling if we can’t run the ball without inserting QB run to the equation for +1 in the box.

The defense was it’s normal self against Northern Illinois. The side of the ball we were going to be needing to lean on gave us all the reasons in the world to be bullish on them after these first three games. They played well enough for us to beat the Gophers and gave up only 13 points midway through the 3rd in Boulder. Against Northern Illinois, they played lights out and only gave up a touchdown once we started rotating our backups in.

Speaking of rotating players… Nebraska played 12 defensive linemen, 11 linebackers, and 13 defensive backs for a total of 36 players getting experience. What a stark contrast we are seeing from previous staffs where they essentially found the “guys they could trust” and only played them. It’s my hunch that things like only playing 18 guys on defense in a game was what would create some of our inability to develop players. With how this staff is doing it, they not only are developing guys, but finding people that are exceptional when the live bullets are flying and the cameras are on.

No better example of that than the fact that Gbayor started at the JACK position for the Huskers this past Saturday. I had wrote in my article pre-Colorado how we are going to need to find a way to stop their talented RBs out of the backfield with guys like Reimer, Henrich, and Bullock. While those guys have strengths, speed covering RBs isn’t one of them. DC Tony White countered that with playing guys like Javin Wright and Gbayor to get more athleticism in those situations. Gbayor shined against the Buffaloes and earned a starting spot, which shows guys behind him and recruits that if you are up to the task and have a great game/week of practice, you are going to play. Javin Wright actually had the third most snaps of any of our linebackers, as he had even more than Henrich, and picked a ball off to boot.

The above two paragraphs are just a great way to not only develop our players, but keep guys healthy in the long run. I firmly believe Reimer and Henrich struggled to stay healthy the past few seasons because our coaches ran them out there 70 snaps per game. And when you think how we had a guy like Hausmann that basically couldn’t get on the field until Henrich was injured, it just makes it even more puzzling. I’m glad to see this staff turn over a new leaf in that regard.

Our defense did have some struggles, however. Northern Illinois posed a problem with how many formations they have and how diverse their offense is. You could see it from time to time where our subbing in/out had some confusion. But in the end, it didn’t end up costing us and seeing all of those things will only help us in the future.

One last thing I want to say on the defense. I love how aggressive it is and trying to dictate to the offense what is happening. For the last 5 years our front guys have been mostly 2 gap hold OL in place so our LBs and DBs can make plays. Watch Nash Hutmacher here over the center, he is fighting across face and pushing the center back into the ball carrier. The guy with the football is screwed:

QB Battle:
I don’t know what to think here… On one hand Sims played Minnesota and Colorado who are easily the 2 best opponents we’ve faced. Would he have had similar results against Northern Illinois that HH did, or would he have continued his turnover trend? Personally, I think Sims would have had a very good day against the Huskies (if healthy). Northern Illinois is like our scout team which I watched him shine against. However, you can’t penalize HH for excelling when the opportunity presented itself.

It’s my thought that Sims is going to start against LA Tech and Haarberg is going to have a few series in there as well. I just don’t think this staff is ready to pull the plug on Sims yet. If HH would have done this against Colorado, I think HH starts. But the competition just wasn’t there to get a fair read.

Things will also get interesting the more film that gets out on HH. Defenses are going to load the box and make him throw. Is he capable enough there? Part of me wants to say as long as he doesn’t turn it over trying to do that he’s an upgrade, but at some point you have to have a QB that can make some plays. Will be interesting to see how things shake out over the next 3 games. I expect Sims to start against La Tech and Michigan, and Haarberg possibly take the reigns against Illinois or after the bye week. I mean, that’s fine if we trot HH out there and he doesn’t turn the ball over against Illinois or Michigan, but what if we only score 7 points?

Those are the things we have to figure out.

Stats Trend:
We are now three games in so we will start to analyze the stats a bit…

Starting with the offense, we are a woeful 94th in the country in points per game with 19.7 per contest. Yards per game isn’t much better at 82nd with 339 yards per game. We are running the ball 63.21% of the time which is 8th in the country, which probably contributes to our low scoring output. However, we are currently averaging 5.1 yards per carry which is good for 29th. That is basically all with QB run as our RBs aren’t averaging near close to that. We are 97th in completion percentage and 95th in percentage of times our QB gets sacked. Not awesome but nothing we didn’t already know. But rest assured our opponents are seeing this trend as well.

Defensively looks really good three games in. We are 5th in the nation, holding opponents to 1.7 yards per carry, if we can keep that up, things will look great there. Besting that, we are 3rd in the country for opponent rushing yards per game with 46.3. A crazy stat (we will see what happens when we finally play a mobile QB). We are 77th in opponent passing yards per game, which is fine, especially considering our sack percentage has us ranked 16th.

From a turnover standpoint, we are 126th in turnover margin. Crazy to think that number improved and we still are only right there. We are 126th in giveaways per game with 3.0. Our defense isn’t really taking the ball away either, as we are middle of the pack for that.

We also are a somewhat heavily penalized team currently as we are in the 70s and 80s for most of those categories.

There’s a lot to like here, starting with the defense. My main concern was the 3-3-5 and how it would hold up against the run and well, you see how great they are doing there. Hutmacher seems to have turned a corner, Gunnerson/Robinson are holding their own (when healthy or not suspended) giving time for guys like Lenhardt and Princewill to get their feet wet. We are easily 2-1 right now due to our defense if not for our turnovers (evidenced by our turnover stats).

What the issue is going to be is the offense. Things will stay relatively easy this week… but they ramp up real quick against Michigan once conference play starts. Can we build on our success we had against the Huskies so that we have some confidence once the Wolverines come to town? I just don’t know on some aspects as our scheme looks a little all over the place to me. But we are showing flashes.

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12 thoughts on “Recap 2023: Northern Illinois

  1. Great write up!
    I dont agree that the NIU D was like a scout team. They beat a BC that almost beat the #4 team in the nation.
    The NIU D in my opinion is similar to colorado but worse than Minn

    1. True, but I guess I would say that Colorado and Northern Illinois defense are both like our scout team. They aren’t very good and ranked in the 90s for most major categories. Minnesota is easily the best defense we’ve played. La Tech will be more of the same as Colorado and NIU.

  2. I remember Jim Harbaugh first two years at Michigan. The offense was blah and very boring. All they really did was try to establish the run against bad teams. So they scored very little points. As the years went by, now they can run on about anyone and the offense is more explosive. I think that is what Rhule wants to do. It will take time to establish the identity but they have to stick with the power run game even if they go three and out. The issue is Michigan had better players, and our OC gets too cute sometimes.

    1. Well, that would certainly be nice. I think the difference is that 2015 Michigan was 10-3 in his first year, and had a QB that really didn’t run, they established with their RBs. It just worries me we may not be that well suited unless our recruits really develop. I do think there will be a big jump in year 2, but our schedule gets wayyy tougher. The 2016 Michigan team I think had the same record and their QB actually had negative yards. I just worry us relying on the QB run so much is gonna bite us. It should be a compliment, not what we do to move the chains every possession.

      1. I am still waiting on our OLine to develop like out DLine. You can tell they are giving the Oline all the help in the world, with extra TEs, Full Back and chipping the DEnd on almost every play.

      2. Ya that’s what’s interesting to me. You can tell Hutmacher and Gunnerson made leaps, Robinson looks improved as well. Then they have numerous first-year guys helping. Not so much on the OL so i’m hoping that’s more of just a gradual thing and not an indication.

  3. thank you as always for the write up, i see this a little bit like the 2009 season.. great defense, hoping for a few def plays to help our offense score on short fields as like you said i can see long sustained drives against better teams in conference difficult with how basic the Off is.. are they just staying generic for later down the road or are they generic cause they have to be..

    1. I was actually thinking the 2009 and 2021 teams are what this reminds me of. A great defense that will give us hope in every game because they will keep it close, then can our offense execute? I think if we are healthy we could possibly steal one from a team like Illinois in that situation.

  4. Yeah I get if your players arent gassed and you don’t have to sub, why a team would stick with their starters. Will be interesting if we will rotate as much down the road if we become more successful in meaningful games.

    I always thought on DLine especially was a place you could\shpuld rotate more. Like tell a backup ok you’re going to get in for a few plays\series, especially some maybe low leverage situations, go balls out and leave nothing on the field, and give the starters a breather.

    1. I think they had Northern Illinois and LA Tech circled as games they would get a lot of the young guys in to see who can help. From there you have another 2 games you can use them in and preserve a redshirt.

      On defense it’s so important to rotate if you can.

  5. Great recap, as always. It looked liked Teddy Prochazka got in the game as a blocking TE. Do you you anticipate him working his way back to starting at Left Tackle by mid-season, health permitting? Or is it going to take longer for him to feel comfortable taking on that responsibility again?

    1. He’s moved up to second string ahead of Gottula at LT. Corcoran seemed to look a little better against NIllinois but not sure if that was because the talent was a little lesser than what we had seen prior. I don’t know if he will end up starting over Corcoran or not, Michigan will give plenty of opportunities for some failures and subbing guys in and out. They are just a class (or two) above us.

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