Sunday, September 28, 2014

Illinois Has No Solution for Huskers' I-Backs as Abdullah Tops 200 Once Again

Saturday morning on KZOT radio (1180 AM in Omaha), I caught former Husker offensive lineman Matt Vrzal telling former Husker linebacker Jay Foreman that if Ameer Abdullah rushed for seven or more yards on his first carry, Nebraska would be fine against Illinois.

Abdullah rushed for 21.  And the track meet was on.  Illinois dropped nine men into the box...didn't matter. Abdullah ate the Illini alive.  It wasn't just Abdullah either... Imani Cross rushed for 109 as well.  It shouldn't have been a huge surprise as the Illini struggled in victories against Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, and Texas State.  So despite their 3-1 record, my only concern was whether Nebraska would suffer a post-Miami let down (or perhaps glancing ahead to next week's game against Michigan State)...and that didn't happen, for the most part.

The passing game wasn't very good today, though it didn't need to to either. Tommy Armstrong missed his first three passes of the game, including a very ugly interception off the scramble.  He still locks in on his primary target.  But I also see why some people love that 63 yard perfectly thrown bomb to Kenny Bell midway through the second quarter.  Simply can't throw a football better.  He was fairly effective running the ball as well, though his best run came late in the fourth quarter on a scramble in garbage time.

Defensively, Nebraska had yet another slow start as the opponent drove the field and scored on their opening possession.  Blown assignments and sloppy tackling once again.  After that, the Husker defense was pretty much fine as Randy Gregory (3 sacks, 3 quarterback hurries) and Greg McMullen (1 sack, 3 hurries) were fairly dominant. (Or at least I thought they were... it was really tough to tell who was out there with the adidas Red Rising uniforms so my recollections could very much be wrong.)

Zaire Anderson was the surprise starter in the middle and had a whale of a game; he looked really comfortable at times out there. But for much of the game, Nebraska went with seven defensive backs and no linebackers on the field (unless you want to count Gregory as a 'backer).  But in retrospect, it's tough to take much out of this game.  Illinois was without their starting quarterback, as Wes Lunt sat (apparently due to an injury suffered last week).  But the bottom line is that I've seen nothing this season to suggest that even with Lunt, Illinois is very good in the first three quarters of any game.

Now it's onto East Lansing and Michigan State.  Last time we saw the Spartans, we watched Nebraska outplay Michigan State - if it weren't for five freshmen turnovers.  Michigan State went on to surprise folks by winning the Big Ten title game convincingly and then upset Stanford in the Rose Bowl.  Now the Spartans have been rolling this season against inferior competition, though they did scare Oregon on the road in the first half.

Can Nebraska win in East Lansing?  Well, they did two years ago.  They should have won in Lincoln last year as well.  But what Nebraska can't do is continue to make some of the same mistakes they have been making this season.  Tommy Armstrong must play like he did last week against Miami and less like today's first half or the McNeese State game.  Abdullah isn't likely to rush for 200 for a third straight week, and the Spartans will do a much better job of tackling than the Illini did.

Defensively, Nebraska must break their streak of coming out slow and depending on Pelini to make adjustments to resync the defense. It'll help if Josh Mitchell is able to go and isn't limited by the hip injury that he suffered late in the game.  It'll also help if Randy Gregory and his defensive linemates are able to continue to be as disruptive as they've been as of late.

But Michigan State has improved more than Nebraska has since last November.  The Spartans are a legitimate top ten team; Nebraska hasn't been able to crack the top twenty. But this game is Nebraska's chance to catch the nation's attention. Win, and the Huskers are 6-0 and in the driver's seat for the Big Ten's west division...and maybe more.

Maybe more... maybe much more.  But only if they can find a way to win.

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