Some of Mickey Joseph’s few words to Husker Radio Network’s Jessica Coody at halftime of Saturday’s game pointed to the Husker defense. Everything Illinois got in the first half was given, he said. They needed to assure themselves in the second half against No. 17 Illinois.
The Illini jumped out in front with a touchdown on the opening drive. Isaiah Williams caught a drag route across the middle of the field and freshman cornerback Malcolm Hartzog got picked among the traffic. That 46-yard strike was all Illinois could do until a second interception put them at the Nebraska 11. Then came a prolonged Illinois drive where the Huskers closed in on quarterback Timmy DeVito but not until he found running back Chase Brown wide open for a 12-yard touchdown. That score with 23 seconds left gave Illinois a 20-9 lead at halftime.
Neither team found the end zone in the second half. It finished 26-9 with No. 17 Illinois scoring the final 20 points of the game against a wounded and hampered offense. But for all the Huskers’ bruises, the defense continually gave the team hope.
“We try to stay together. Even if the offense is struggling we try to pick them up and vice versa,” junior cornerback Quinton Newsome said afterwards. “It’s always one team, we’ve got to pick it up for the other side. It wasn’t a problem for the defense because we like going out on the field and getting the ball back for our offense.”
Nebraska defensive coordinator Bill Busch said earlier in the week that the Huskers couldn’t stop Chase Brown. The nation’s top running back was going to get his yards. They just had to do what they could to contain him. Brown ran for 149 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries. He broke a few for more than 10 yards but none longer than 21, where edge rusher Caleb Tannor caught him from behind.
Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito was 20-of-22 for 179 yards and two touchdowns. The Illini didn’t ask much of their quarterback but he consistently delivered, not throwing an incompletion until late in the second quarter.
“I feel like the defense played well as a unit. We just have to eliminate the big [explosive] plays and wrap up, get guys to the ground and swarm to the ball more,” Newsome said. “I think we played good but we could play better.”
Luke Reimer, back in the lineup after missing the Purdue game, tallied a game-high nine tackles. Marques Buford and Myles Farmer each had seven. Both nickle Isaac Gifford and Newsome sacked DeVito.
The Husker defense forced three three-and-outs in the game, all before that hit on quarterback Casey Thompson. With 8:29 left in the second quarter Thompson took a hit while throwing. Illinois intercepted the wobbly pass, Thompson’s second of the game, and the quarterback stayed on the turf. He told coaches on the sidelines he got hit on the elbow and lost feeling in his fingers. Thompson went to the trainer’s tent, then to the locker room and back out on the sidelines for the second half.
Nebraska’s offense struggled with the starting quarterback on the sidelines. In the 23 minutes, 29 seconds Thompson quarterbacked the Huskers, they went 214 yards in five drives. That included 9 points and two interceptions. In the remaining 36 minutes, 31 seconds the Nebraska offense managed 34 yards on eight drives. That included an interception, a fumble and five punts. The most successful play in that stretch was a 2-yard run by quarterback Chubba Purdy that extended 15 yards with a late hit penalty. Immediately after that came an incompletion, false start, incompletion and run back to the line of scrimmage.
Tight end Travis Vokolek caught Nebraska’s only touchdown, extending a sideline route and tightroping the sidelines for a 56-yard score. Even he couldn’t get the offense moving in the second half.
“Obviously it’s unfortunate that Casey went down,” Vokolek said. “But we’ve got great quarterbacks in our room. Guys trust Chubba and Logan (Smothers) and the other guys in that room. Nothing changed for us, we came out, had a great game plan, we just didn’t execute.”
Illinois effectively schemed receiver Trey Palmer out of the game by getting to Thompson. Palmer had one catch for 1 yard, which was Smothers’ only completion. Anthony Grant led the Huskers in receiving with three catches. After Vokolek’s team-high 56 receiving yards on his one catch, Alante Brown had 47 on two catches and Brewington added 45 on two catches.
The Huskers’ offensive line answered interim head coach Mickey Joseph’s call for increased physicality. They built a pocket for the quarterback and didn’t allow a sack until Nebraska’s final drive in an obvious passing situation.
“I think in the first half we picked up their blitzes pretty well,” offensive lineman Ethan Piper said. “End of game it’s kind of hard, especially the last drive, it’s a 2-minute in obvious pass, I don’t know. It’s hard protection we had there. But overall I thought we did a good job handling blitzes.”
Joseph felt good about a few aspects of the game but wanted to check the film on Sunday. Coaches and players will revisit the game and be honest with themselves about what needs fixed, he said.
“We’ve got to go back and look at film and see where this thing went wrong at and come back and fix it,” Joseph said. “We can’t let this team beat us twice.”