Instant Reaction: Illinois
There was some concern over this game in Nebraska circles headed in, but the Huskers handled their business quite well in the 39-19 win over Illinois. The win was Nebraska’s ninth-straight in regular season Big Ten play.
Here are my updated grades from the game for the Huskers.
QUARTERBACKS — 7.5 (Change: None)
Tommy Armstrong had one bad pass that cost him his third touchdown pass of the day and his consistently high passes could be an issue against a better secondary, but there’s little reason to worry about Nebraska’s offense overall with Armstrong at the helm. In fact, you’ll probably hear more people saying they prefer that to any alternative, including Taylor Martinez, but let’s see the freshman go on the road first.
RUNNING BACKS — 8 (Change: +0.5)
Ameer Abdullah has looked very good this season but on Saturday he looked definitively like one of the best two or three backs in the Big Ten. His brilliance (225 yards, two touchdowns) was enough to overcome a rough day for Imani Cross (bad run for a safety, fumble in the red zone).
WIDE RECEIVERS — 8 (Change: None)
Quincy Enunwa adds to his touchdown total, and Kenny Bell makes the catch of the year so far for Nebraska. You know what you’re getting out of those two, but Jamal Turner’s wasn’t even targeted in the first half and tweaked a hamstring in the second. Bo Pelini said after the game that Turner’s status is up in the air, but Nebraska is eventually going to need a little more than just Bell and Enunwa. If they get it, from Turner or elsewhere, the sky’s the limit for this unit.
OFFENSIVE LINE — 6.5 (Change: +0.5)
Sack prevention is still good and topping 300 yards on the ground is nothing to scoff at, even against Illinois. Most importantly, this group is still healthy. I like the direction this group is heading, but their story will be written in November.
OFFENSE — 7 (Change: None)
There were some individually brilliant moments (Abdullah, Bell), but this is a tough one to assess. There still seemed to be just something missing from this offense overall, thought you wouldn’t notice it from the box score. Cautious optimism is still probably the most reasonable takeaway from this game.
DEFENSIVE LINE — 4.5 (Change: +0.5)
There’s still a lot not to like about the Huskers’ run defense, but of all the units, I thought the defensive line was the most assignment-sound. Nice day for the senior Jason Ankrah, who had a sack and interception.
LINEBACKERS — 4.0 (Change: -0.5)
This was a maddeningly up-and-down effort. Jared Afalava, making his first start, looked athletic but missed his fair share of plays. David Santos, bouncing back from his early season benching, was was good in spots, bad in others. The Huskers’ most consistent linebacker at this point might be Michael Rose who had a team-high 11 tackles.
DEFENSIVE BACKS — 7 (Change: None)
Good effort by the Nebraska secondary to slow down one of the Big Ten’s best passing attacks. Andrew Green, starting in place of Harvey Jackson at safety, had a couple of nice plays. Ciante Evans got to the quarterback twice, recording a sack and forcing an interception, as Nebraska finally dialed up some consistent pressure via the blitz.
DEFENSE — 4.5 (Change: +0.5)
The Good: Illinois entered the game averaging 307.5 yards per game passing, and the Huskers held the Illini to just 177 yards on 51.6 percent passing. The Bad: This defense is still struggling to stop the run in spots — a bizarre inability to get off blocks that occasionally looks like simple unwillingness, bad angles, minor technique failures — and that’s a bigger problem against most of the Big Ten. Still, against an offense that appeared ready to challenge the Huskers, they really weren’t. This is the way forward for Nebraska; minor improvements week-to-week and Saturday’s win certainly qualified.
SPECIAL TEAMS — 5.5 (Change: -0.5)
The wind made things tough on both teams on Saturday, but that’s still not an excuse for two missed extra points (one each by Mauro Bondi and Patrick Smith). The Huskers haven’t had to rely too heavily on the kickers at this point in the season but they will and there’s some cause for concern there.
Feel free to drop your rankings or comments below.