LINCOLN — No letdown. A little letting up. But a rout for the record books.
In alternate, all-red duds and a two-tone helmet more befitting of space suits, Nebraska shook off a slow start, marched through irritant Illinois and now turns toward the season’s statement game at top 10 Michigan State.
After a 45-14 pounding of the Illini, the Huskers will take with them to East Lansing a running game that again found its furious stride — 458 yards, often on power plays out of the Pistol — and a defense that, for the second straight week, forced three turnovers.
“It’s a good formula,” coach Bo Pelini conceded.
Yet he was irked. No. 21 Nebraska may have run 29 more plays, gained 285 more yards and possessed the ball for nearly 40 minutes. But Pelini didn’t like that Nebraska’s defense gave up its fourth opening-drive touchdown of the season, this time on a 41-yard run by Illinois back Josh Ferguson. And he didn’t like that NU’s offense, hot knife through butter that it was for most of the game, committed two first-quarter turnovers and got sluggish late.
Off to just his second 5-0 start in seven years, Pelini’s demeanor had already shifted after the game.
His switch was set to improvement.
“There were times when we didn’t play very clean,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you want to be a great football team — which we’re not yet — we have to have high standards. And we do. That’s what we hold our guys to. Believe me, I’ll take a lot of the things statistically. But stats don’t win football games.”
Big plays do. And while Nebraska and Illinois (3-2) traded touchdowns and turnovers in the first quarter — Illinois backup quarterback Reilly O’Toole threw an interception right to NU corner Daniel Davie, while Tommy Armstrong threw his own pick and Imani Cross lost a fumble — Nebraska settled itself with a five-minute stretch of physical, explosive football that secured the game in the second quarter.
» First, the Huskers completed an 80-yard, 10-play touchdown drive they started in the first quarter. Ameer Abdullah, who chalked up 208 rushing yards while picking through driveway-sized holes punched open by the offensive line, finished the drive with runs of 13 and 8 yards into the end zone.
» Next, NU’s “dollar” defense – featuring three safeties, seven defensive backs overall and no linebackers — baited O’Toole into lofting a quail toward coverage. Nate Gerry, who had bailed out of blitz to play the deep middle of the field, settled under it for an interception, immediately got a crushing block from Randy Gregory and weaved 51 yards on the return.
“He smacked him pretty good,” Gerry said of Gregory’s block. Gerry added that the block had probably already “gone viral” on the Internet. It set up an Abdullah 2-yard touchdown — the I-back’s first career three-touchdown game.
» Third, after the Illini went three-and-out, offensive coordinator Tim Beck dialed up a play-action deep pass to Kenny Bell, who beat his man on a post pattern and caught a perfectly-thrown pass from Armstrong for a 63-yard touchdown.
“We figured we’d run enough to where we could play action — maybe get a deep post off that safety who was biting down on the run,” Armstrong said.
The Huskers led 28-7 with 8:43 left in the first half. Illinois answered with a 58-yard touchdown pass from O’Toole to Geronimo Allison — the former Iowa Western standout who the Huskers failed to offer a scholarship — cutting the lead to 28-14, but NU’s defense forced seven punts and got an interception after that.
The Illini gained just 127 yards in the second half, as Gregory bore down on O’Toole — notching 2.5 sacks — and the Huskers “dollar” look thoroughly confused Illinois, which tries to flummox foes with a variety of formations and paces.
“I thought it was effective for us,” said Pelini, who has used the defense in the past. “We had some free hitters. I thought we bothered their quarterback, threw him off rhythm a little bit.”
Said Gerry: “We put in a new style of package.”
In front of 91,255 fans at Memorial Stadium, Nebraska’s offense relied on old-school football. Seventy running plays, with Abdullah and Cross getting 22 carries each. Most of the action took place inside the tackles; Nebraska’s offensive line was able to reach the second level of Illinois’ defense with ease, and the Illini were reluctant to commit more than seven men to stopping the run against NU’s spread formations.
“I think they did a great job of getting movement and creating holes for us,” Cross said. “It’s extremely fun. The confidence is there, the push from the offensive line is there. It’s just a great situation when you know there’s going to be holes.”
Can Nebraska’s line create those holes against a Michigan State defense known for plugging every hole available for a running offense? The Huskers have before in three games against the Spartans. Can the defense stop a Spartan offense that has racked up at least 466 yards in every game this year?
“We need to fix us first,” Pelini said. “We can’t start the way we did defensively. Can’t shoot ourselves in the foot and have turnovers and things like that. Things that don’t magnify themselves tonight could magnify themselves a week from now. I don’t know how that game is going to go. I don’t have a crystal ball, but what we can control is getting better ourselves to give us the best opportunity to win the football game.”
Said Armstrong: “Michigan State, they’re no fluke team. They’re good. We can’t make mistakes that cost us the game.”
|Yards per carry||3.3||6.5|
Nebraska is 12-3 all-time against Illinois.
|Florida Atlantic||Aug. 30|
|McNeese State||Sept. 6|
|Fresno State||Sept. 13|
|Miami (FL)||Sept. 20|
|Michigan State||Oct. 4|
Nebraska has played 11 games on Sept. 27. See them all »
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