CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Chants of “Husker Power!” in one corner. Chants of “Go Big Red!” in the opposite corner.
Memorial Stadium in downstate Illinois sounded a lot like Memorial Stadium in Lincoln as Nebraska knelt out an easy 28-6 win over the Illini. NU quarterback Tanner Lee, fresh off the best game of his early NU career, slapped his hands in satisfaction and started finding teammates to congratulate. It was, unlike so many other Husker games this season, anticlimactic. It was a “ho-hum” Big Ten win in a season that’s had a lot of “oh boy.”
Maybe Nebraska football should play all of its games on Friday night. (Just kidding, high schools.)
Still, the short week of preparation seemingly suited the Huskers. As it has for the last 14 quarters, coordinator Bob Diaco’s defense did its part, but it was Nebraska’s offense, near-flawless in the first half, that had coach Mike Riley smiling.
NU had just three first-half drives and scored touchdowns on all of them. Not gimme touchdowns, either. Marches of 88, 75 and 89 yards. Twelve runs and 13 passes. NU averaged nearly six yards per carry. Lee didn’t miss a pass in the second quarter.
“I thought it was the most overall balanced game we’ve had,” Riley said. “And if you could put it together where you talked about rushing production and passing efficiency, it was more of a picture that we’d like to say is us.”
Said Lee: “That’s something we’ve been talking about a lot. We’ve had some games we’ve started off well but we haven’t been able to carry that into consecutive drives. That was good to finally come together and get that done, and show ourselves that it can be done.”
Lee finished 17 of 24 for 246 yards and three touchdowns. He didn’t throw an ill-advised pass until the third quarter. After that, he kept the ball out of harm’s way, and even took a sack on a third-and-long.
“You can really build on a performance like that, especially from that position,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said.
The Huskers (3-2, 2-0 Big Ten) averaged 9.52 yards per play in the first half and consistently kept Illinois (2-2, 0-1) off balance, but the initial touchdown — a 45-yard pass from Lee to De’Mornay Pierson-El — set a tone, as Pierson-El beat press coverage from defensive back Jaylen Dunlap so badly that Dunlap slipped, and Pierson-El, after catching Lee’s pass over the middle, blasted past the Illini defense toward the pylon.
Lee, getting good pass protection from his line, held on to the ball an extra beat, he said, until Pierson-El flashed open.
That play punctuated an eight-play, 88-yard drive, and it was like a punch to Illinois’ jaw. The Illini’s defensive backs weren’t quite as aggressive after that, and the relative freedom they gave Husker receivers — Pierson-El, Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman — to start their routes also afforded Lee rhythm and confidence.
“We had ‘em on their heels a little bit early with that completion,” Langsdorf said. NU’s wideouts — who got a boost from the return of Morgan — won key man-to-man situations, Langsdorf said. Lee was able to work the middle of the field, and hit his tight end, Tyler Hoppes, on a few play-action passes, including a picture-perfect bootleg pass for a 6-yard touchdown.
With run-first, throw-wobbly quarterback Chayce Crouch, the Illini were much more one-dimensional on offense. Just 16 passes for the game, one of which was intercepted by linebacker Chris Weber. Twice in the first half when Illinois had third-down situations in Husker territory, offensive coordinator Garrick McGee called a run instead of a pass.
Illinois had eight possessions for the game, and five of them reached Husker territory. One of them lasted nine minutes and stretched 15 monotonous plays. Two drives penetrated the NU 10. Diaco’s defense allowed just six points. It bent and bled a little, but never broke. It held Illinois to 199 yards — the second straight week an opponent gained fewer than 200 yards — and notched a season-high five sacks. Redshirt freshman Ben Stille was a particular terror, with three tackles for loss and a strip-and-sack of Crouch.
“It was really a lot of fun to be a part of some moments of low red-zone defense and bowing their backs and getting a stop, a couple of stops,” Diaco said. “That was really cool.”
Weber said the players understand and believe in Diaco’s system. So when Illinois, trailing 21-3 in the third quarter, recovered Husker running back Devine Ozigbo’s fumble at the NU 32, Nebraska’s defense wasn’t nervous. Two sacks later, Illinois was punting the ball back to the Huskers.
“It’s the perfect example of what we’ve been working on in practice,” Weber said. “We practice those sudden changes … we weren’t expecting to be out there, but just the energy that guys play with, that was a huge stop for us.”
After that punt, NU started at its own 7. It drove 93 yards in 14 plays for the foot-on-the-throat touchdown. The march included a fourth-down conversion in which Riley turned down a field goal to go for the kill. Running back Mikale Wilbon needed one yard, and gained two after a nifty jump cut around a defender. Lee threw his third and final touchdown pass to Morgan three plays later.
Then, when Nebraska needed to burn nearly seven minutes off the clock at game’s end, it succeeded. Ozigbo — who finished with 106 yards — ran the ball 11 times in a row. On a third-and-20, he gained 20. Cue the chants.
“It was nice to see us running to win the game at the end,” Riley said. “Loved it. Absolutely thought that was beautiful.”
Now it’s about to get brutish. Here comes Wisconsin, the burr in Nebraska’s saddle, the Big Ten West bully that has won four straight over the Huskers. The business-like tone of NU players after the game suggested they know what awaits.
Weber said that was the vibe in the locker room. The balanced win was good — and came with some impressive stats. But the real test awaits — on a Saturday night.
“It’s a team that’s gone to the Big Ten title game,” Weber said of the Badgers. “We’re excited for that challenge.”
|Yards per carry||2.5||4.3|
Nebraska is 12-3 all-time against Illinois.
|Arkansas State||Sept. 2|
|Northern Illinois||Sept. 16|
|Ohio State||Oct. 14|
|Penn State||Nov. 18|
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