LINCOLN — Under a blanket with a giant Herbie Husker stitched into it, Connie Larson sat in the first row of Memorial Stadium’s north end Saturday as Nebraska finished out a 54-35 win over Illinois.
“That’s the old Herbie logo,” said Larson, who is from Omaha. “Not that new one.”
The coldest Husker home game since 1993 — 23 degrees at kickoff — brought the blankets out in full force. Fans wore them like capes and shawls. Leopard blankets. Hunting blankets. A bright blue blanket consisting of the Olaf character from “Frozen.” Don McPherson, a 96-year-old World War II veteran from Adams, sat under a blanket commemorating NU’s national titles in 1994 and 1995.
NU players had to settle for big coats and hot benches. Don’t be ashamed to use them on the sideline, coach Scott Frost told his team, but, when you’re on the field, block it all out. On Thursday and Friday, with snow angels on the turf and snowflakes stinging their eyeballs, he prepped players for the conditions.
Illinois didn’t always look so ready. Five Illini turnovers — three of which were self-inflicted — were largely the difference in the game with 89 points, 1,115 total yards and 699 rushing yards. NU had 24 points off turnovers. Illinois had seven.
“We got some good breaks today,” Frost said. “We were probably due for some good breaks.”
Like two muffed first-half punts that turned into 10 Husker points. Illinois even deployed two returners to guard against such mistakes. If only the Illini’s returners could catch.
The second fumbled punt, occurring 20 seconds before halftime when coach Lovie Smith called time out to set up a return, was caused when Illini receiver Jordan Holmes allowed the ball to bounce off his chest, then get kicked down to the Illinois 7. Nebraska defensive back Jeramiah Stovall recovered.
NU (3-7 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten) turned a 31-21 lead into a 38-21 lead with an Adrian Martinez touchdown pass.
Opportunistic defense and special teams. A dominating offense.
“That’s a formula to win,” Frost said.
In front of 88,316 announced fans at Memorial Stadium — perhaps 70,000 were actually in their seats at kickoff — Nebraska’s offense generally moved the ball at will, piling up 606 yards on just 68 plays. Five of NU’s seven touchdown drives took fewer than two minutes.
Even in the cold, Nebraska’s offense stayed red hot. Nebraska went over 450 total yards for the seventh straight game, breaking a school record. Frost called NU’s first-half offense “a thing of beauty.”
“Man, it’s fun calling plays,” he said.
Martinez, who completed 71 percent of his passes for 290 yards, threw touchdown passes of 37 and 32 yards to Stanley Morgan, who was streaking free up the seam of Illinois’ defense. Devine Ozigbo ripped off a career-long 66-yard run — breaking a tackle at midfield — for one touchdown, then scored on a 60-yarder in the fourth quarter. A 49-yard run from Maurice Washington — who left nursing an injury — set up another touchdown.
NU averaged 9.3 yards per carry. Ozigbo averaged 14.7. Ozigbo, now just 42 yards from 1,000, sees defenses baffled and frustrated by the tempo and versatility of Frost’s system. If the opponent gives NU’s offense an inch with a few turnovers, the Huskers can take it a mile.
“We have so many weapons and so many ball fakes and just a bunch of ball movement that it’s hard to target,” Ozigbo said.
Illinois’ run game tore up the turf, too, to the tune of 383 yards, the fourth-highest total allowed by Nebraska in the Big Ten era.
“I’m not really thrilled about that,” defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg said.
Illini quarterback AJ Bush, who spent two seasons at NU, and back Reggie Corbin either had Nebraska’s defenders stopped in quicksand or were zooming by them on skates. Bush, who finished with 187 rushing yards, weaved his way around and through NU’s linebackers and defensive backs like a punt returner, and he repeatedly bedeviled the Huskers on third down with his running ability. He jawed often with his former teammates, too.
“AJ Bush was AJ Bush,” NU defensive tackle Carlos Davis said. “We were talking a lot of mess to each other, and I was trying to put him out of the game, but I didn’t get too many hits on him. He’s a very dynamic player.”
Bush, through no fault of his own, threw an interception on Illinois’ opening drive of the second half. Illinois receiver Dominic Stampley let a pass slip through his hands. Husker safety Aaron Williams gobbled it up.
Cue the off-brand, 17-play, 82-yard Husker touchdown drive that featured three fourth-down conversions. The Frost era may not have another like it. It ate 7:48 off the clock and sapped whatever remaining chance Illinois (4-6 and 2-5) had. NU led 45-21 with 4:07 left in the third quarter. The teams traded blows in the cold after that.
Martinez, from Fresno, California, said it was the coldest game he’d ever played in. Cornerback Dicaprio Bootle from Miami, holding a cup of hot chocolate after the game, agreed. Frost said he’d played in colder games — presumably at Wood River High School — but rarely coached in them, since Oregon and Central Florida don’t usually get as frigid as a Plains state on a windy day.
Knowing his players might have to acclimate to the conditions, Frost, shirtless, took them outside Thursday for practice, having players do two perfect snow angels on the turf. Then he took them outside again for NU’s “fast Friday” workout.
“It was brutal (Friday) morning,” Frost said. “If we had had to play in those conditions, I don’t know how many passes we would have been able to throw. Wind was howling out of the north and little snowflakes were hitting you in the eyeballs. I’m glad we got the ‘good’ weather.”
|Yards per carry||7.8||9.3|
Nebraska is 13-3 all-time against Illinois.
|Troy (formerly Troy State)||Sept. 15|
|Ohio State||Nov. 3|
|Michigan State||Nov. 17|
Nebraska has played 19 games on Nov. 10. See them all »
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