Final take: Taking baby steps
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Did Nebraska fix all their issues in one day on Saturday? No. However, what the Huskers did do against Illinois is take steps in the right direction and show signs of improvement.
In a game in which NU was only favored by 7 ½ points at kickoff, Nebraska dismantled Illinois 39-19, and it really wasn't even that close.
The Huskers ran the ball down the Illini's throat to the tune of 335 yards on 50 carries. They controlled the line of scrimmage and dominated up front the way you should on a cold windy day in Memorial Stadium.
The defense also took a step forward and got into a rhythm when it mattered most in the first three quarters. On Illinois's 12 total possessions, eight of them were five plays or less resulting in punts or turnovers. NU also held the Illini to just 4-of-15 on third down plays.
"It certainly is a step in the right direction," defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "Statistically and the way I thought we tackled and got a couple of turnovers and three sacks, I thought there was a lot of improvement. We just have to keep going. We have to be better next week when we play Purdue than we were this week."
If anything it was just important for Nebraska to put it all together against a quality conference opponent. Big Ten season is here and the Huskers played like they knew the importance of this game.
"I thought it was key. I thought we needed to do that," senior cornerback Ciante Evans said when asked of the importance of starting off Big Ten play strong. "The defense knew coming into this game that we needed to come out strong and perform, because they have a very good offense. We knew that we need to stop them, create turnovers and make plays so our offense could get the ball back. That was very important for us this game."
The offense scored 39 points on Saturday, but realistically they should've put up over 50 on the board. Senior wide receiver Kenny Bell said it didn't matter though, because the defense stepped up and made plays when it mattered.
"The offense was marching up into that fourth quarter. We kind of took the foot off the gas pedal, which is disappointing," Bell said. "We didn't finish like we wanted to, but hats off to the defense. I had a lot of fun watching the defense today.
"They seemed like a whole new confident group. They were flying around, they were having fun and that's what we want to see out of our defense. There's so much talent there, that that's the No. 1 thing that I wanted to see - I'm proud of those guys. Obviously there are going to be mistakes on both sides with special teams included. The defense deserved to play good football."
On to the post game grade out…
What I saw on Saturday
***I thought linebacker David Santos finally looked like the player people thought he would at the start of the season. His veteran presence helped the defense get set when it mattered.
***There were still some issues with the defense getting set, but most of that came during the fourth quarter when there was a lot of substituting going on. Illinois's final scoring drive kind of put a sour taste in the defense's mouth after a strong day.
***Sophomore defensive end Randy Gregory continues to make those "eraser" plays where he shows his athletic ability and makes plays down field.
***Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong played solid once again, but make no bones about it Taylor Martinez will be the starting quarterback once he gets healthy. The question is when will that be? If NU can get by without Martinez next week, they have another bye to give his foot more rest.
***Give the offensive line a ton of credit. They continue to open up holes for the backs and protect the quarterbacks.
***The two missed extra points are a huge concern. Heading into game six we still don't know much about NU's kickers, but what we do know is they've missed three extra points this season. That hasn't happened in a long time at Nebraska.
***Redshirt freshman Jared Afalava was a pleasant surprise. He made a few mistakes, but when he got some fire in him you could see his natural ability.
***My early MVP of this team still remains wide receiver Quincy Enunwa. Each week the guy finds more and more ways to impress you.
The final grades
Rushing offense: A-
Nebraska ran for 335 yards on 50 carries for three touchdowns. With strong wind conditions the Huskers knew they were going to have to establish the running game, and they came in with a blue collar attitude. However, Imani Cross had a disappointing fumble and was tackled in the end zone for a safety. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck took the blame for the safety and said it was a "dumb call" by him.
Passing offense: B
Nebraska was an efficient 11-of-20 for 186 yards and two touchdowns through the air. Both Armstrong and Ron Kellogg missed some open men downfield at times, but they made the most of things considering the wind conditions. They also got some help from Bell and Enunwa, who had spectacular touchdown catches. NU didn't allow a sack all day or throw an interception.
Rushing defense: C+
Illinois ran for 195 yards on 48 carries, but a lot of them where meaningless yards late in the fourth quarter when NU was substituting. It was definitely a step in the right direction. There were some issues at times, but not near the numbers we've seen in previous games this season. The linebackers also did a nice job playing the run.
Passing defense: B
The wind probably gets credit for some of this grade, but Nathan Scheelhaase was just 13-of-26 for 135 yards and no touchdowns. When Nebraska blitzed they got effective pressure at Scheelhaase. They also did a nice job of not letting him scramble and make plays with his feet.
Special teams: D
Nebraska missed two extra points on Saturday, which as Pelni said is "inexcusable." In a big game with higher stakes that could come back to really hurt NU. The Huskers also only fielded one of five punts by Illinois, but the wind made it hard to track the ball in the air.
Sean Callahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he can be heard each day at 6:50 am and 4:50 pm on Big Red Radio 1110 KFAB in Omaha during the football season. He can also be seen on KETV Channel 7 TV in Omaha during the fall and each week he appears on NET's Big Red Wrap Tuesday's at 7 pm.