I sensed a lot of concern from Husker fans in recent days over Nebraska's game with Illinois. At a superficial level, it was easy to see: Nebraska's defense has been porous for all season, and the Illini torched Miami (Ohio) last weekend. Of course, most fans probably didn't realize that Miami's defense was the second worst in division 1-A. Heck, I'm not sure that Enrico Blasi's hockey squad at Miami couldn't have done better job slowing Illinois than the Redhawks' football team. So I wasn't quite so concerned, especially when I realized that the Illini defense was playing nearly as poorly as Nebraska's this season.
It was sure nice to see Nebraska seize command of today's game right from the start. Earlier this season, I-Back Ameer Abdullah seemed a little off. A little slow, a little sluggish...I couldn't say for sure in the first two games against Wyoming and Southern Miss. That was then, this is now...and Abdullah is now running at an all-Big Ten level. 21 touches for 240 yards, and it all started with the second play of scrimmage. After the first of many errant Tommy Armstrong passes (more on that later) to open the game, Abdullah ripped off runs of 11, 3, 30, and 2 yards to give the Huskers the lead that would never be relinquished.
Abdullah's backups weren't anywhere near as effective. Terrell Newby had an 11 yard run to open the second quarter, but had a fumble in the third quarter that might have killed a drive. Imani Cross had two fumbles (one lost), and even worse, got nailed for a safety in the second quarter. That safety appeared to be a bad call to me; Cross got nailed inside the 2 yard line and pushed back into the end zone, where he was tackled. Normally, the call is forward progress stopped at the 2, and that's where the ball is spotted. Not here.
That wasn't the first of the bad calls. Cross was also the victim of a horse-collar tackle that wasn't called. Neither was intentional grounding on Nathan Scheelhaase for a fourth quarter throw that fell two yards shy of the line of scrimmage. But they did manage to flag Jared Afalava for pushing Scheelhaase out of bounds. Not to mention Kenny Bell for shh-ing the student section. And all game long, they allowed Illinois to snap the ball without allowing Pelini to get his substitutes into the game.
While the officials were wrong, it's ultimately Bo Pelini's responsibility to recognize the way the officials were handling the game, and to stop the situational substitutions. No excuse to bull-headedly continue to be caught with players not in position, or even worse, have 12 (or more) defenders on the field. Save the protest for the conference office; you have to play the way the game is being called.
Kenny Bell's acrobatic one-handed touchdown catch will show up on every highlight reel, but it was a symptom of Armstrong's errant throws all day. Undoubtedly, the wind made it tough to throw the ball today, but even short throws (like that fourth and goal pass) were off target. Only great efforts by Quincy Enunwa, Bell, and Sam Cotton turned incompletions into completions. Am I being overly tough on Armstrong? Yes, when you consider he's a freshman. But not at all, when people still insist that there is a quarterback controversy at Nebraska. Armstrong wasn't too bad today, but the reality is no matter how much some people dislike the senior, Taylor Martinez is Nebraska's best quarterback. Or at least, when he's healthy. Will he be healthy next week? Don't know. Will he be healthy in three weeks against Minnesota? Hope so. How about in a month against Northwestern? That's the big question, and he better be.
On the defense, we saw a revamped lineup up front with several surprises. I was pleased to see Aaron Curry start, but I expected him to replace Thad Randle instead of Vincent Valentine. Valentine played later in the game, and caught my eye a few times getting some penetration into the backfield, so I'm hoping this was a motivation thing. Michael Rose had a big day on the stat sheet replacing Zaire Anderson (out with a bone bruise) and Nathan Gerry. That being said, with the number of times Illinois running back Josh Ferguson got into the Nebraska secondary, there's going to be some painful video study this weekend for Nebraska's linebackers.
Randy Gregory did have another monster game at defensive end, and you get the feeling that he's starting to get comfortable with his role. This is where we remember that he's just a sophomore...and going to get even better. Did linebacker play improve with Michael Rose and Jared Afalava in the game? A bit, but there were still a few too many misreads with guys seemingly out of position. Andrew Green had a strong performance today at safety; I'm still not prepared to say that the other safety position opposite Corey Cooper is solved. Le Roy Alexander looked OK at times in relief, but sometimes it was more of the same problems that Nebraska's had all season long.
Bottom line is that it was a win, and a better win than Vegas oddsmakers and some pessimist fans expected. And that makes it a good win.