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For the second game in a row, Nebraska was just fine without its record-breaking senior quarterback under center.
With Taylor Martinez on the sideline again with a turf toe injury, redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong once again made the most of his opportunity as the starter by leading the Huskers to a 39-19 win over Illinois in Saturday's Big Ten Conference opener.
Armstrong completed 8-of-13 passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns while junior running back Ameer Abdullah came through with arguably his best game to date, rushing 20 times for a career-high 225 yards and two touchdowns. On defense, the Huskers (4-1 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) shut down dual-threat quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase all day, forcing two turnovers and racking up three sacks against the Illini offense.
"I'm happy to get the win," head coach Bo Pelini said. "I thought there were a lot of positives in the game and a lot of things we need to get better at. We're still a work-in-progress as a football team. At times, I thought we were pretty good. And at times, I thought we were our own worst enemy. That's got to get fixed. We weren't efficient enough, especially in the second half. We left a lot of points out there in the second half. We couldn't finish the way we wanted. But I saw a lot of good things out there."
Two weeks after his stellar debut against South Dakota State, Armstrong came out picked up right where he left off to open the game. With the help of some strong running by Abdullah, the Huskers marched right down the field on their first drive of the day and scored on a two-yard run by Abdullah to take an quick 7-0 lead.
Nebraska then got the ball back after an Illinois fumble at midfield on its ensuing drive, and Armstrong connected with senior wide out Quincy Enunwa for a four-yard scoring strike to make it 14-0 with just under six minutes left in the quarter. The touchdown catch was Enunwa's sixth of the season, and he also eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark for his career and moved in the NU top-10 all-time receptions list in the first half.
"Coaches are calling the plays and I'm executing them," Enunwa said. "The quarterbacks are finding me in the endzone and I'm catching the ball. That's about it. I worked in the offseason to be better than I was last year, and so far I'm doing pretty well."
Because of the high winds that gusted upwards of 30 mph, Illinois opted to go for it on a long fourth down in Nebraska territory but turned it over on downs. This time senior Ron Kellogg took over at quarterback and led the Huskers to a 27-yard field goal by Pat Smith that increased the lead to 17-0 with 13 minutes left in the second quarter.
The Illini finally got on the board with a 14-play, 72-yard drive that ended with a 38-yard field goal by Taylor Zalewski, but Armstrong came back in and led the Huskers into the end zone for the third time in as many drives on NU's next possession. This time it was sophomore Imani Cross who barreled his way in from two yards out, but a missed extra point by Smith left the score at 23-3.
While Nebraska's defense kept Illinois out of the end zone the entire first half, the Illini were still able to add a couple more points before halftime by pinning the Huskers with a punt at their own 4-yard line and then stuffing Cross behind the goal line for a safety to cut the lead to 23-5. Despite the disappointing ending, Nebraska had one of its more overall complete halves of the season with Armstrong leading the way, going 7-of-9 passing with 98 yards and a touchdown an Abdullah putting up 81 yards and a score on nine carries.
After averaging 9.0 yards per rush in the first half, Abdullah continued its big day on the opening drive of the second half, taking an option pitch around the right end, breaking four tackles en route to an impressive 43-yard touchdown scamper.
Illinois responded with its first offensive touchdown of the day on a on a one-yard touchdown run by Donovonn Young that capped off a 14-play, seven-minute drive and made the score 30-12 with just under six minutes left in the third quarter.
That rally didn't last very long, though, as Nebraska capitalized on an interception by defensive end Jason Ankrah in Illinois territory and scored on a highlight-reel one-handed catch by Kenny Bell, who took it 37 yards for a touchdown. Another missed extra point, this time by Mauro Bondi, left the score at 36-12.
"Honestly I told (Bell) after that catch, 'Thanks for saving my butt,'" Armstrong said. "I read the MIKE and played the MIKE. The MIKE ran with him and I tried to get it over the MIKE. I judged the wind the wrong way. It was just crazy out there. The ball kind of rose a little bit. He went up and caught it. If it wasn't for him catching it, I probably would've thrown a pick. The safety was sitting up top waiting on it so thanks for saving my butt. It was a great thing to see."
The Huskers nearly scored again after a turnover on downs by Illinois, but Armstrong led tight end Trey Foster a little too much on a fourth-and-goal pass that fell incomplete. That would one of Armstrong's few mistakes on the day, though. Nebraska added one last 32-yard field goal by Smith and Illinois punched in a final touchdown run with less than a minute left to give the game its final score 39-19.
Nebraska will look to improve to 2-0 in conference play next week when they travel for their first road game of the season at Purdue, which is set for an 11 a.m. kickoff.
"We want to show the Big Ten that our offense and our defense are ready to play," Enunwa said. "People might have their doubts, but we want to come out strong and hopefully we'll get to the Big Ten championship."