Barrett Ruud said it succinctly last week.
The more you win, he said, the easier it is to recruit.
It seems self-evident. But it's always a good reminder, especially following a gut-punch loss.
"It's just the way it is," said Ruud, Nebraska's inside linebackers coach. "You've got to produce on the field."
Nebraska produced well in several areas Saturday night. It produced 525 yards of total offense, including 238 on the ground. It held Northern Illinois to 74 rushing yards and just 2.3 per carry. Isaiah Stalbird, a walk-on from Kearney, produced two blocked punts. Meanwhile, the Huskers had three kicks blocked — two field goals and an extra point.
Yes, it was a rather strange game. Those NIU pooch punts were things of beauty. But as odd as the night was, Nebraska took a step forward with its 44-8 triumph in front of 89,593 fans at Memorial Stadium. Yes, the win was significant. There's a temptation to say "ho-hum," in part because the Huskers were two-touchdown favorites. They should always beat teams from the Mid-American Conference. But I'm not saying "ho-hum" because I thought the game would be closer.
Bottom line, the Huskies (1-2) never seriously threatened the home team.
"We did a lot of things better than we did the first couple weeks and going back even longer than that," said Nebraska second-year head coach Scott Frost, whose team suffered a body blow last week in the form of a 34-31 overtime setback at Colorado.
What's more, Nebraska (2-1) didn't play particularly well in winning its opener, a 35-21 decision against South Alabama in which the Jaguars pushed the Huskers deep into the second half.
So, yes, this was progress. And make no mistake, this win was definitely needed in a big way. Nebraska is in a key recruiting stretch. It had no fewer than six official visitors on hand, including four-star cornerback Henry Gray of Miami, and four-star safety Myles Slusher of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Recruits want to see if Frost has the program heading in the right direction.
This game provided evidence to support that notion.
Plus, think about the consequences of Nebraska falling to 1-2. This is a program that's desperate to end a two-year bowl drought. Had Northern Illinois pulled off an upset, the Huskers would've been faced with finishing no worse than 5-4 in the Big Ten in order to qualify for a bowl. If nothing else, the win eased pressure in that regard.
The win eased pressure, period. The loss to Colorado was a gut punch. It elicited groans and even a fair amount of cynicism among Nebraska fans. There was a feeling of "Here we go again." After all, the Huskers are coming off back-to-back 4-8 seasons. Plus, those cynics surely noticed Air Force's 30-23 overtime win against CU on Saturday.
So, yeah, Nebraska needed the win. It played like it needed a win. You saw urgency. The Huskers needed to show urgency because Big Ten play is now upon them. They travel to Illinois this week to face an Illini squad that dropped a 34-31 decision to Eastern Michigan on Saturday.
Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters looked anxious and unsure of himself, a sharp contrast to Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, who guided the Buckeyes to a 51-10 dismantling of Indiana in Bloomington, Indiana. If you watched that game, perhaps you caught the FOX halftime show during which Urban Meyer said of the OSU secondary, "Those guys are all NFL players."
I'm sure that's wonderful news to opponents mindful that Ohio State also has powerful edge rusher Chase Young, who's regarded as a strong contender to be taken No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft.
Throughout Nebraska's nonconference season, I've sized up the Huskers with the Sept. 28 game against Ohio State in mind. I'll size up Nebraska-Illinois with the Buckeyes in mind. OSU looks like a College Football Playoff contender.
So, yeah, Nebraska needed to make progress against Northern Illinois and it'll need to take another big jump this coming week. Keeping hard-charging running back Dedrick Mills in rhythm could really help matters in the Big Ten, especially against Ohio State's rugged front seven.
"I thought Dedrick took a big step in the right direction," Frost said after the junior-college transfer carried 11 times for 116 yards and a touchdown against a Northern Illinois defense that had been strong against the run this season.
The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Mills had only 68 yards on 23 carries (3.0) in the first two games.
"The first couple weeks, I was rushing the line instead of slowing myself down, seeing the right holes and making the right cuts," Mills said.
Meanwhile, Nebraska's defense put the clamps on the visitors, allowing only two field goals.
"They have big linemen, big linebackers," said first-year Northern Illinois head coach Thomas Hammock. "The Oklahoma State transfer (Darrion Daniels) is tough to move, and the linebackers played downhill. So we tried to create some angles to give ourselves a chance to win the football game."
The Huskies never came close, even if it felt like it at times during a rather strange night.
You might say "ho-hum," but you won't catch me saying it.
Frost's crew needed this win. It needed to take a step forward. It accomplished both objectives.
Bring on Illinois. Ohio State? Nebraska can think about that later.