1. Lee bounces back
It’s hard to believe there was a point just six quarters ago where Tanner Lee was met with boos from Nebraska fans as his took the field against Rutgers after his nation-leading ninth interception of the season.
The junior quarterback completely flipped that script on Friday night by putting together far and away his best performance as a Husker, completing 17-of-24 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.
Lee completed 10 consecutive passes at one point and was 9-of-9 for 110 yards and a score in the second quarter alone. Had it not been for a flurry of drops from his receivers, those numbers should have been even better.
His final quarterback rating of 198.2 was the best of his college career, and for the first time this season Lee looked far more like the poised, game-changing QB he was hyped up to be going into the year.
2. Blackshirts continue to thrive
Speaking of massive improvements from the start of the season, Nebraska’s defense continues to play at another level from the group that was torched through the first two games.
After shutting down Rutgers last week, the Huskers had their best defensive game of the year against Illinois, holding the Fighting Illini to just 199 total yards.
That marks two straight weeks NU has held its opponent under 200 total yards, the first time that’s happened since 2001. It’s also the third straight week the Blackshirts have allowed fewer than 250 yards, the first time they’ve accomplished that since 2003.
On top of that, Nebraska set season highs in tackles for loss (10) and sacks (5.0) and allowed the fewest points (6) in a game yet under head coach Mike Riley.
Friday night marked the fewest points NU has given up since a 24-3 win over Michigan State back in 2011 and the fewest allowed on the road since a 21-3 win over Kansas State in 2006.
3. Offensive line has best game yet
From the standpoint of controlling the line of scrimmage from the opening snap to the final victory kneel down, Friday night was the best overall performance Nebraska’s offensive line has posted this season.
The Huskers set the tone immediately with three straight touchdown drives to start the game for the first time since 2009. Not only that, three of those drives marched 85 yards or longer, highlighted by a 93-yarder that ended with the game-sealing touchdown pass to Stanley Morgan in the fourth quarter.
Yes, NU gave up two sacks and a few other hits on the quarterback and committed two penalties, but when it had a chance to put the game away down the stretch, the offense hitched its wagon to the o-line and ground out yardage to seal the deal.
This was a unit that was marked as the team’s biggest concern following the loss to Northern Illinois, but it’s now put together two straight weeks of physically imposing its will on defenses late in games. That is a very good recipe to follow.
4. Morgan is vital to NU passing game
Stanley Morgan wasn’t perfect by any stretch, as he had at least four dropped passes that could have turned a convincing win into a total blowout victory.
That said, even though he was still nursing a neck injury that forced him to miss last week’s Rutgers game, the junior wide receiver was one of the biggest difference makers on Friday night.
Morgan finished with a career-high eight catches for 98 yards and put the game to bed with an impressive 23-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Morgan has recorded at least five catches and 94 yards in each of the four games he’s played this season, and he’s now 12th on the school’s all-time receptions list (84) and 16th in receiving yardage (1,152).
He is without a doubt Lee’s go-to guy in the passing game, and his presence on the field changes everything for Nebraska’s offense.
5. Balance was perfect picture for offense
Since the day Riley was hired, he’s preached that his ultimate vision for what Nebraska’s offense should be was a balanced attack.
While a run-heavy fourth quarter to close out the win skewed the final numbers, the Huskers couldn’t have been much more equally balanced and productive with their run and pass games.
At the end of the third quarter, NU had run the ball 20 times for 101 yards and a touchdown while passing it 20 times for 224 yards and two touchdowns.
Being able to set the tone with the running game early, make big plays with the pass off of that, and finish off games on the ground is exactly what Riley is looking for every week.
“If you could put it together where you talked about rushing production and passing efficiency, that’s more of the picture that we’d like to say is us…” Riley said. “That efficiency coupled with the running game, that’s a nice looking picture to me.”
6. Pass rush comes alive
One of the bigger criticisms of Bob Diaco’s defense early in the season was the lack of any sort of pass rush.
After a season-high five sacks against Illinois, it looks as if Nebraska is finally starting to turn up the heat a bit.
The Huskers dialed up noticeably more pressures against Illinois’ young quarterback and offensive line, and that sack total could have been even higher had UI’s Chayce Crouch not escaped a number of tackles in the backfield.
But of those five sacks, four came from defensive linemen, meaning the majority were a product of the Huskers winning one-on-one matchups and disrupting Illinois’ entire offense.
7. Stille is on the rise
One of the more pleasant surprises for Nebraska’s defense was the emergence of redshirt freshman Ben Stille.
In his second straight week playing a big part in the defensive end rotation, Stille put together a monster night with four tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack, and a forced fumble.
Diaco said the staff realized a few weeks ago that they had to get Stille on the field more, and his role has grown significantly over the past two games.
Riley called him a “prototype” for what they’re looking for in a 3-4 defensive end, and it’s obvious that Stille has only scratched the surface of his potential.
8. Running back rotation paying off
With Tre Bryant sidelined for a second-straight game with a knee injury, Nebraska once again relied on a heavy rotation at running back against Illinois.
The strategy paid off to the tune of 38 rushes for 165 yards and a touchdown, with Devine Ozigbo leading the way with 18 carries for 106 yards and Mikale Wilbon following up with 13 rushes for 61 yards.
The bulk of that production came when NU needed it the most, as it ran the ball on 18 of its 22 plays in the fourth quarter for 64 yards, including Ozgibo carrying it on 11 straight snaps during a 13-play final drive.
Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said he wasn’t sure what they would do with the running back duties once Bryant returned to action, but they clearly have found a formula that works with their two-headed backfield attack.
9. Hoppes finally makes his impact
He only had two catches for 27 yards, but tight end Tyler Hoppes may have had his biggest impact on a game yet in the win over Illinois.
Not only did he haul in his first touchdown reception of the year on six-yard toss in the third quarter, he added a 21-yard catch and run on NU’s second drive that led to a touchdown two plays later.
He also had big plays that didn’t show up on the final stat sheet. Hoppes took a shot to the head on an incomplete pass on NU’s third play of the game that was called for a targeting penalty and ejection of starting safety Bennett Williams.
Later in the third quarter, Hoppes bailed out Lee in a major way when he turned himself into a defensive back and broke up what should have been a sure interception.
That play helped keep Illinois of gaining big momentum in a 21-6 game and allowed Nebraska to go on to seal the win with another touchdown.
10. The real test begins
As good as Nebraska is feeling right now after two straight Big Ten victories, the reality is that’s exactly what the Huskers were expected to do against inferior competition.
Things are going to pick up big time starting next week, as NU begins a grueling second half of the schedule by hosting West Division rival Wisconsin for a primetime showdown on Saturday.
It’s one thing to power over teams like Rutgers and Illinois, but the Badgers will be the best team Nebraska has faced to date this season and will pose a significantly tougher test in all phases.
It doesn’t get any easier after that, either, as Ohio State comes to town the following weekend.
The next two weeks could ultimately define what this season becomes of the Huskers. Can they continue their recipe for success they seem to have found the past two weeks against more talented opponents? Or will they be brought back to reality in a hurry?