Nebraska’s schedule could not have been set up much better for what the Huskers needed at this point in the season. Two weeks ago, the Huskers were reeling after a bad loss to Northern Illinois. Last week, Nebraska got back on track with a much-needed win, but one couldn’t really feel too good about it after beating lowly Rutgers by just 10 points.
However, Saturday’s 28-6 win at Illinois is something to give the fans hope and a reason to believe the team is on an upward trajectory.
Granted, Illinois was bad — as in, probably worse than Rutgers bad — but Nebraska put forth its most complete effort of the season. The Huskers out-gained the Illini 411 to 199. Quarterback Tanner Lee was incredibly efficient, completing 17 of his 24 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns while the running backs totaled 177 yards on 32 carries (5.5 yards per tote). On defense, Nebraska held the Illini without a touchdown and recorded 10 tackles for loss, including five sacks.
“I really think it was kind of a balanced football game — offense, defense, whatever the special teams role was in it I thought it was probably the most overall balanced game that we’ve had,” Coach Mike Riley said. “If you could put it together where you talked about rushing production and passing efficiency, it was more of a picture that we’d like to say is us.”
Illinois did not offer much resistance, but facing lesser opponents hadn’t resulted in anything close to a complete game at any point in the season prior to Friday. In this game, those watching could start to see what Nebraska wants to look like.
Nebraska’s offensive line kept Lee clean in the pocket for much of the game including almost the entire first half. They had some slip-ups late, but the new-look front line including Michael Decker at center and Brenden Jaimes at right tackle held its own for the second straight week.
“I was telling them all night I had time,” Lee said. “They were playing great and continuing to do that. Late in the game we were able to get behind them and kind of go into a four-minute offense and run the clock out and win the game. That’s how it’s supposed to be done, how it’s supposed to look and they were taking great pride in doing that.”
Lee put forth arguably the best performance of his college career and was incredibly sharp distributing the ball all over the field on time and on target. At one point, he completed 10 straight passes. Even more importantly, he made perhaps one bad decision all night and showed progress by throwing the ball away once or twice and taking a sack on another snap rather than trying to make a play that wasn’t there.
Nebraska got enough out of its ground game as well with Devine Ozigbo averaging nearly six yards per carry and Mikale WIlbon averaging 4.6 per run. For the second straight game, the Huskers were able to salt the clock away by jumping on Ozigbo’s back and having the junior carry them to the end.
“I really like that,” Riley said. “I was really excited about that … We found a couple of runs that we could run there at the end and it was nice to see us running to win the game at the end. I loved it, absolutely thought it was beautiful. Obviously we need all this growth in the last couple of weeks in particular to get in a position to compete to win against Wisconsin. I think all those things coming together, it’s pretty exciting.”
Nebraska marched right down the field and scored on all three of its first-half possessions. It hit a rough patch early in the second half with a three-and-out followed by a fumble but reasserted control with a 93-yard touchdown drive. Meanwhile, the Blackshirts kept the Illini out of the end zone. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the closest to it Nebraska has been this season.
“I think that you can really build on that,” Langsdorf said. “I thought we had a very good first half — productive, our drives were really sharp. I didn’t like how we came out the second half. But Tanner really kind of kept everybody together. Like I said, you can really build on a performance like that, especially from that position, not turning the ball over, making good decisions. I think that it was just a really well-balanced game for us.”
After a disastrous first half in Eugene and the startling loss to Northern Illinois, Nebraska has rebounded to open 2-0 in Big Ten play and is back above .500 at 3-2 overall. Next up is the Huskers’ biggest test to date.
“I like where we are right now, actually,” Riley said. “We’ve won two Big Ten games — we won one on the road, we won one on a short week, we gain a day to give our kids an extra day off. I think that will be good for them, and then we’ll get ready to play Wisconsin.”
What Nebraska did against Illinois likely will not be enough to beat Wisconsin, but the Huskers were able to prove to themselves they are capable of being who they want to be.
Now Nebraska has to be that team against a Badgers squad built on imposing its will in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
“That is a process, and it is a goal in each ball game,” Riley said. “Sometimes in order to impose your will, it takes all three hours and 27 minutes of the game to do a that, but that is the goal, and I know it’s Wisconsin goal. I know exactly how they approach the games and what they try to do, and frankly their running game is great and their quarterback is one of the highest efficiency guys in America.”
Nebraska looks to have found itself in Champaign, which is about all one could have asked for from that game. Is that team good enough to hold its own against the West Division favorite? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But there is no doubt that it is better equipped to do so than the Nebraska team from two weeks ago.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.