Nebraska opened the game against Illinois with a long touchdown drive; the first score on an opening drive in 2016, and I thought the Huskers were well on their way to a dominating victory. Perhaps what Gary Sharp called for earlier this week on KOZN-1620 AM radio: "A Fifty-burger."
Except it never materialized. Nebraska consistently moved the ball, albeit in small chunks all day, but trailed after halftime thanks to a couple of turnovers. The defense was surprisingly leaky against an Illinois team that could only rush for three yards two weeks ago against Western Michigan. Online chatter from the media suggested that Nebraska's linebackers were the reason, and from my perspective, senior Josh Banderas found himself out of position on Kendrick Foster's 31 yard touchdown run and Nathan Eckhard's 26 yard catch that set up Illinois' game tying field goal in the 2nd quarter. We didn't see much of Banderas after that today. For what it's worth, I saw both Michael Rose-Ivey and Dedrick Young both make a few plays.
I'm not quite sure what to make of Nebraska's offensive line play today. On short yardage situations, the Huskers generated enough push to drive Illinois back three yards consistently...but until late, the Huskers couldn't generate anything more than a 4 or 5 yard gain. Through the end of the third quarter, the Huskers rushed 31 times for 89 yards. That's not going to cut it in Big Ten play. Dauwane Smoot wreaked havoc all game long from defensive tackle. David Knevel got pulled at right tackle in the second quarter, but to be honest, Cole Conrad wasn't better by any means.
But the one thing I took away from this game was that Nebraska stayed with the run and resisted the temptation to go to the air. I was reminded of last year's Iowa game where Riley panicked as the game went on. Tommy Armstrong threw 45 passes, four of which turned into interceptions, and Nebraska lost to Iowa. Nebraska wore down Illinois in the fourth quarter on the ground, which is something that Michigan State proved could be done a week later in the Big Ten title game.
It's a win, but a costly win. The injuries to Jordan Westerkamp and Cethan Carter could be very serious; I don't expect them back anytime soon. As luck would have it, Nebraska has a bye week next week, which is very good news for a 5-0 team. Nebraska might be able to survive the next two games playing this way, but the reality is that Nebraska can't afford to wait until the fourth quarter to get things going under the lights in a month.