That wasn’t the word I was expecting to use to describe Nebraska’s 39-19 win over Illinois to open Big Ten play. On paper the Illini looked to have the high-powered offense to challenge a Nebraska defense that had made just about everything look hard over the first month of the season. The Huskers’ offense wasn’t exactly making things look effortless either prior to the bye week, while Illinois’ defense was looking at least average. (That counts as an upgrade over previous seasons.)
In short, Nebraska and Illinois didn’t look too dissimilar coming into this one. Then the game started, and it looked a lot like the game most projected back in August — easy.
What was the difference? Was it an extra week of preparation? Another Tommy Armstrong start? Defensive changes?
No, no, and no. It was much more basic than that and gets to the somewhat mundane heart of football: Put yourself in good situations, stay out of bad ones.
That started with the very first decision Nebraska made on Saturday – take the wild and whipping wind to start the game. It allowed the Huskers to start their first drive at their own 43-yard line after one of the Big Ten’s best punters, the Illini’s Justin DuVernois, could only push Nebraska back 29 yards. It forced Illinois to forego an early field goal attempt and go for it on fourth down. It helped Nebraska jump out to a 14-0 first quarter lead and the game never got closer than two touchdowns.
But the Huskers succeeded in a couple of key areas no matter which way the wind was blowing, too. The average starting field position for Illinois in this game was the 24-yard line. That’s eight yards better than what Nebraska was averaging coming into this game. It might seem like a small difference, but those extra eight yards are important for a developing defense that, at best, is still in the “bend but don’t break” mode.
The Huskers also succeeded on third down. The Illini came into the game converting more than 53 percent of their third downs and ranked 12th nationally. In this game, Illinois went just 4-of-15 (26.67 percent), which helps obscure the fact that Nebraska still gave up more than eight yards per play on first down and allowed the Illini to move the chains 24 times.
“We did a good job of knowing the down and distance, the situation and what was at stake,” senior cornerback Ciante Evans said. “We knew we had to get off the field and do other things that are obvious when you’re playing defense. I think we understood what was going on.”
Except that those things weren’t for the defense early this season. Nebraska still struggled in some of the same areas in this game as it did early this season. The run defense was porous for long stretches, plagued by bad angles and an inability to get off blocks. The pass defense was closer to what we’ve come to expect from a Bo Pelini-coached team, but still had some misses in the open field.
If you thought those things were getting “fixed” with a week off, you probably expected too much. What was a fair expectation was progress, and while it might not have been totally obvious during the game, Nebraska succeeded where it had to and that might be the blueprint moving forward.
“I saw our guys take some of the things that we talked about during the week and transform it to the field today,” Pelini said. “We did a lot better job as far as that’s concerned. That’s what you want to see as a coach.”
Nebraska showed Saturday that it could win in the Big Ten if it plays smart. Play the field position game, run the ball more than anyone other than Ameer Abdullah would probably like, and give your defense less time and more yards to work with. The Huskers’ defense showed on Saturday that it still needs those things, but it also showed that it’s capable of taking advantage of those things if the offense and special teams can provide them.
That’s not a huge leap forward, but it’s a small step in the right direction.
Defensively, that’s how the 2013 season will be measured and, with two more games against the bottom rung teams of the Big Ten plus a bye week, there’s at least some hope now that it just might work.