Yes, earned. Even though the Huskers will have plenty to assess and fix during the bye week, it made the plays it needed to, the plays it wasn’t making earlier, when it mattered most.
That’s sometimes what winning looks like. It’s oftentimes what it looks like in the Big Ten and that’s a puzzle, based on five full seasons in the conference, Nebraska hasn’t totally figured out to this point.
But maybe it’s getting there. That’s what Saturday looked like.
“Keep your poise, keep playing, even though it wasn’t very pretty, and then make some plays to win the game,” Mike Riley said. “It was great.”
Here’s where Illinois football is at right now. The Illini only got to run 44 plays, but for much of the game they were moving the ball well enough to win. Illinois’ defensive line, through three quarters, was wreaking enough havoc to win. Through three quarters, Illinois as a whole had done enough to have a realistic shot for its first win against a ranked team since 2011.
This game had all the makings of one that got away from the Illini’s perspective, but first-year head coach Lovie Smith didn’t seem all that bothered that the Huskers pulled away in the fourth quarter.
“I am proud of the way our team lost today, we got better as a football team,” he said. “It’s about wins, ‘W’ or ‘L’, at the end. We know we still have a loss but we made improvements in a lot of different areas.”
Riley doesn’t have the luxury of a similar approach after going 6-7 in his first season. No Nebraska coaches really ever get that, but the fact that Riley didn’t have to assess the value of a loss for another week is perhaps another sign that the Huskers have something in 2016.
They were far from perfect against Illinois. Two scoring opportunities went by the wayside courtesy of penalties and yet another turnover in the red zone, the Huskers’ fifth this season. There have to be serious questions about how the offensive line will hold up over seven more games of Big Ten play. The defense struggled to tackle at times. Injuries entered the equation in a big way on Saturday.
Nebraska came into this game down two starters on the offensive line and without Alonzo Moore, perhaps its best big-play threat through four games. By the time the Huskers started their final drive of the third quarter – an epic 18-play, 75-yard drive that lasted nearly 11 minutes and gave the Huskers their first lead since the second quarter – it was without tight end Cethan Carter and wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp, two more key components of the offense. Another one, running back Devine Ozigbo, went down on the drive and didn’t return.
Despite all of that, Nebraska found a way to do what it has done best this season – own the fourth quarter. Calling on Terrell Newby on 20 of the Huskers’ final 24 plays, Nebraska put up 21 points in the final 15 minutes, including two touchdowns from Newby, to make this one look more comfortable than it ever was.
For the season, Nebraska has now outscored its opponents 78-6 in the fourth quarter. That’s what winning looks like, too.
“Our team has made plays to win games, and I think the fourth quarter is when you’re doing that,” Riley said.
Will the late kick be enough against better opponents in the bitter cold of late October? That remains to be seen, but it’s a big reason why the Nebraska escaped Saturday as the only team in the West Division that is still undefeated.
Wisconsin almost played well enough to win on the road against Michigan, but lost. Minnesota almost played well enough to win on the road against Penn State, but lost. Nebraska almost played poorly enough to lose at home to Illinois, but won.
That’s life in the Big Ten. How good does that make this Nebraska team as it turns toward a needed week off?
It’s hard to say the Huskers are in the upper echelon again, but that’s OK.
Through five weeks of the 2016 season, Nebraska has the record a lot of upper echelon teams would love to have and that buys the Huskers more time to get there.
Saturday showed that Nebraska’s not so far beyond last season’s woes to overlook upcoming games against Indiana and Purdue. But the longer the Huskers give themselves to get just a little better, the longer anything remains possible in year two under Riley.
You can’t ask for much more from early-season football.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.