It was in the 70s in Orlando, Florida, Saturday morning when Nebraska kicked off against Illinois. In Lincoln, the “feels like” temperature was in the single digits. At kickoff, it was officially the coldest home game since 1993. Quite a difference. “The coldest it ever got was probably 50 at this time,” safety Tre Neal said. “Those guys can go out there and tan if they want to.”
Neal was with head coach Scott Frost and the rest of this Huskers’ staff at UCF before grad transferring to Nebraska. He’s not a fan of long sleeves so he had to find other creative ways to stay warm on a frigid Saturday morning at Memorial Stadium. Not a fan of the cold, but he knew it wouldn’t matter because of what he was signing up to be a part of.
The temperature in Lincoln was thrown around quite a bit when Frost was mulling his options last December. Naysayers of the Nebraska job said it was too cold and no one would want to come play in a place where it was so cold.
Frost wasn’t one of those people. He, along with the rest of the staff, knew what he was bringing to the table and knew he could attract anyone in the country to come be a part of what he was going to build. Heat up on the field, and nothing else will matter.
In a 54-35 blowout of Illinois (4-6, 2-5 Big Ten), Nebraska (3-7, 2-5 Big Ten) showed the machine is starting to heat up. It’s starting to look the way it’s supposed to. It’s starting to feel the way it did in Orlando.
“This felt like last year, how it’s supposed to be,” Neal said. “Of course defensively we don’t want to give up points, but [Frost]’s one of those guys like, ‘Look, take your chances, go make a play. Even if you get beat, so what? If you go make that play, we’re about to get the ball and score even more points.’
“That’s why we teach just take your shot, take your chances because if you hit, it’s like hitting the jackpot. If you hit it, you’re a millionaire forever. If you miss, oh well, you just missed. You get to play again.”
The Huskers gave up 383 rushing yards to the Illini. Yes, there were quite a few missed tackles. Linebacker Luke Gifford felt Nebraska was in its fits all day long, but just missed against good ball-carriers. Given the nature of the Illinois offense, those misses resulted in big hits. Fifty-one percent of Illinois’ yardage came on 17 percent of its plays. After all, this was a top-10 rushing offense.
But the road squad topped 500 yards of total output and never felt within striking distance of the Huskers.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander often talks about how playing defense against modern offense is like picking your spots. Yards are going to be surrendered, but it’s about getting stops when you absolutely need them and creating turnovers.
Nebraska did both against the Illini. After back-to-back scores on their first two drives, Illinois strung two drives together that scored points just once more all game.
Nebraska also forced five turnovers, its most in a single game since generating six against Wyoming in 2016. It marked three straight weeks with at least three turnovers.
“It’s important and that’s the way I want it to look around here in the future,” Frost said. “I want our offense to be rolling and humming like that, and an opportunistic defense. The way we play offense it’s going to be hard to imagine a defense that can hold somebody to three points every game, but that doesn’t matter if we can score and get some turnovers.”
It wasn’t a classic 1990s Blackshirt performance. Nebraska didn’t stonewall the other team’s offense but it suffocated the defense. It put up 600 yards in a game for the second time this season, at least 500 for the fifth time (most since 2000) and at least 450 for the seventh straight game (first time ever).
“There early on in the game, watching our offense execute, man, it’s fun calling plays, it was a thing of beauty,” Frost said. “Those guys were executing everything that we were calling. We didn’t stop ourselves until we got a holding penalty, which I think was the first drive that we didn’t score.”
In 15 total drives, the Illinois defense forced four punts. Freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez went over 300 yards of total offense again, and in doing so broke a program record for total offense in a season by a freshman. Senior back Devine Ozigbo went for 162 and three scores on 11 carries. He’s up to 958 yards on the year on 127 carries. That’s a 7.5 yards per carry average, almost double what his career average was heading into the year.
There was a point when Nebraska took back over with 3:20 left in the fourth quarter, having already scored 54 points, and it looked like the Huskers might try for 60.
On a 17-play, 82-yard drive in the third quarter, Nebraska went for it on fourth down three times.
“There was no discussion,” offensive lineman Tanner Farmer said. “We’re staying out here until you make us come off.”
Farmer said that singular drive felt like the point where Nebraska exerted its offensive will. It certainly felt like one of those tone-setting drives you see great offenses make. It lasted nearly eight minutes of game clock; Illinois simply could not kick Nebraska off the field.
In the first game of the season, Nebraska went for 565 yards and only scored 28 points. In Game 4, it put up 582 yards of offense and still just 28 points. “We were looking at the kind of yardage we were putting up, 500 yards for a lot of the games and we said we should be putting up almost 50 points with this many yards,” Farmer said. So, it became a goal.
Nebraska has gone into games recently aiming for a 50-piece. Next, Farmer says, the goal is 60.
“I think it’s supposed to look like this but there’s always room for improvement,” he said. “I don’t want the punter to go out there. I don’t think we should ever have to use the punter. That’s my goal as an offense, to score on every drive. Is that realistic? No, but that’s my goal.”
Each Saturday before Nebraska takes the field, the team gets together and watches a film cut-up of highlight-worthy plays they’ve made. Offense and defense sit together as one unit. Get a pick, get your play on the tape. Bust a big run, get your play on the tape.
That tape is getting longer. The plays are starting to add up. Into points, into wins, into confidence.
“We need to build it that way,” Frost said. “An aggressive, attacking defense, might give up a few points but gets the ball back for us. If we’re as good as I hope we get on offense, that’s a formula to win.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.