Huskers Frolic on Friday as Blackshirts Deny Illini and Playmakers are Predominantly Proficient
After a short week, the Nebraska Cornhuskers defeated an Illini team with thirteen days to prepare 28-6 in a workmanlike exhibition on the road in Champaign, Illinois. Granted the opponent entering this game had statistically the worst defense in the conference and was the worst passing team in the Big Ten. The Illinois defense ranked 96th in the country in rushing defense and were ranked 123rd at getting off the field on third downs. They have also decided to play for the future in that they have started 18 true freshman this season including 10 in this game. But the point for Husker fans is that for the first time this year, Nebraska handily disposed of a team they were supposed to defeat and made the pre-game 6 ½ point spread look woefully inaccurate.
After the game, Head Coach Mike Riley looked and sounded more relieved than happy as the pressure on him to produce remains significant. The quarterback he has chosen to go “all in” with rewarded him with the best game of his career and with nearly a 200-quarterback rating (198.2) ….and it could have been even higher without several drops by Nebraska’s best receiver. Tanner Lee finished the game 17 of 24 for 246 yards and three touchdowns, but could have easily been 20 or 21 of 24. From his last throw in the first quarter to his first throw in the 4th, Lee completed 10 passes in a row. Oh, and lest I forget – NO interceptions. In fact, except for a couple of second half breakdowns by the offensive line, he wasn’t even that close, and, he even through the ball away at one point. Could Patrick O’Brien have seen the field late in this game? Probably so, but he just would have been handing off to Devine Ozigbo at that point.
The contrast in competition between the last two opponents and the next two foes couldn’t be more dissimilar. Have the first five games adequately prepared the team for what is to come? The jury is still out, but the defense is starting to gel, especially against the run and especially in the second half. Illinois had 199 total yards of offense with just 46 yards after intermission. This is the third straight game the Blackshirts limited their opponent to under 250 yards and the last time the Huskers had a three-game stretch like this was 2003. The pressure up front has improved as well as Nebraska had season highs in tackles for loss (10) and in sacks (5). Bob Diaco’s “Bend don’t Break” philosophy was exemplified in the Illini’s two scoring drives that took 27 plays and 14:35 off the clock to net 110 yards and just 6 points. The rest of the game they managed just 89 more yards. Even though the Huskers have moved to 3-2 on the year, the competition has not been too stiff, and that will certainly change shortly. But, perhaps with the progress of the last two games, there has been some improvement in team confidence and in player morale. It certainly wouldn’t hurt if next week Josh Kalu, Marcus Newby, and Tre Bryant could also return from the injury list.
On offense, the striking numbers are the yards garnered in the four scoring drives – 88, 75, 89, and 93 yards which accounts for 345 of their 411 total yards. Nebraska now has six drives this season of at least 85 yards. The last time that Nebraska scored on its first three possessions was 2009. The Huskers ran just 25 first half plays but had 12 first downs. The irony is that the first half proficiency could easily have been derailed on the Husker’s first drive which would have resulted in a three and out had Tyler Hoppes not been targeted on third down. The 21-3 halftime lead was largest lead at half in Big Ten games since Riley has been the coach and Nebraska is now 12-2 under Riley when leading at the half.
The offensive line provided Tanner Lee with more time to throw and again wore down the defense so that the 4th quarter, they could pound the ball and spend the clock. Perhaps one benefit was that for the first time this year, the starting five on the line were the same for two weeks in a row. Brenden Jaimes and Michael Decker started again and may be difficult to displace. Perhaps when Conrad, Knevel and Farniok are healthier, it may allow for some rotation up front, …but probably not because it is Coach Cavanaugh that would have to consider that novelty.
Devine Ozigbo (18 rushes for 106 yards) led the rushing attack once again and had his first touchdown of the season on a gritty 15-yard run in the 2nd quarter. Ozigbo garnered 72 of his yards on 11 carries in Nebraska’s last possession in which he accounted for all four first downs before two kneel downs to run out the clock. Ziggy also had the Huskers first lost fumble of the season as Nebraska put the ball on the turf four times this game and have been playing with fire all year before finally losing one. Mikale Wilbon added 60 yards on 13 carries including a nifty 15-yard dash to set up a first and goal for the Husker’s third score. Tanner Lee’s two second half sacks resulted in 16 lost yards.
Stanley Morgan, Jr. (8 catches for 96 yards) returned after a game lost to injury and was both prodigious and pedestrian. He may have been shaking off some rust with three drops, but he also had an extended stiff arm that led to a 23-yard 4th quarter touchdown in which he tight roped along the sideline. Morgan seems to excel on the difficult catches and struggle when Lee hits him right on his number 8, but I also think that Tanner Lee looks a lot better overall when Stanley is on the field. Morgan now has 84 career receptions placing him at 12th on the NU career list and is up to 16th in career receiving yards with 1,152. De’Mornay Pierson-El (4 catches for 94 yds) caught a 45-yard touchdown pass on Nebraska’s first drive which was the second longest in his career. This was his 4th TD catch this year and 10th career catch as he is now just ten yards from reaching 1,000 career receiving yards. He also made a great move on a 29-yard catch in the second quarter. Tyler Hoppes (2 catches for 27 yards) had his first touchdown catch as a Husker in the second quarter to complete the 89-yard drive. He also saved Lee an interception when he stripped the ball from the defensive back late in the 3rd quarter.
Just when the offense appeared to struggle with a bad series at the start of the second half followed by Ozigbo’s lost fumble on the next series, the defense stepped up and produced two straight three and outs, the first with 14 lost yards. Ben Stille (4 tackles) came up big on that series with a forced fumble and then later his first career sack and three tackles for loss. It’s not clear at times if he is an outside linebacker or a defensive end or both but he is getting better each week. Chris Weber (9 tackles) had a huge game with his first career sack, two tackles for loss and then his first career interception to close out the first half. Antonio Reed and Dedrick Young contributed six stops each, while Luke Gifford and Aaron Williams each added five more. Carlos Davis (3 tackles) is becoming a beast on the defensive line as he pressured throughout and added a sack to his two tackles for loss. Khalil Davis and Freedom Akinmoladun also added sacks for the Huskers.
There was not much significant activity from the special teams in this game. Caleb Lightbourn punted just two times and both of those were in the second half. They were both below his season average, but they did not yield a return and one of them was inside the 20. Drew Brown had two touchbacks on five kickoffs and added four more extra points to stay perfect on the season. The longest kickoff return yielded was 29 yards, and JD Spielman had just one return (20 yards) for the game. Pierson-El fumbled a punt on a ball that should have been fair caught and Matt Stovall bailed him out with the recovery.
Nebraska stands alone in first place in the Big Ten West (for a day anyway) with their 2-0 record. The reckoning begins in 8 days when the pesky Badgers from Madison make their appearance in Lincoln followed by the Buckeyes from further east. Nebraska has played Wisconsin tough the last few times and may have a shot to edge them at home this year. It will likely come down to whether Good Tanner or Bad Tanner is more prevalent on that particular evening. After a day in Ketchikan, Alaska, tomorrow we visit Juneau where we plan to take a float plane and explore five different glaciers. After that, a day in Glacier Bay before we start heading west across the Pacific. The Wisconsin game will occur when we are somewhere east of Japan avoiding missiles launched by Rocket Man. Go Big Red!!!
ThotDoc's Brain Droppings on the Illinois Game
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