The retreat of the Blackshirts has stopped, at least for a week.
Having spent most of the non-conference season getting gouged for huge chunks of yardage, the Nebraska defense showed encouraging signs during Saturday's chilly, windblown 39-19 win over Illinois at Memorial Stadium. That began with holding a Big Ten team to 100 yards under its average total offensive output.
The Nebraska defense left its elementary school playground beatings behind, and may have entered its adolescence. There were growth spurts. Players communicated better. They pursued and tackled better. Beating Illinois is nothing to thump your chest about, but it was much better than getting into a shootout against a team that will finish under .500 for the second consecutive season. If we've learned anything, it's that we should take absolutely nothing for granted on defense this year, and should appreciate each sign of progress.
The defense showed us that yes, it can get off the field once in awhile. Four three-and-outs and a pair of takeaways got the crowd rocking.
For starters, the defensive line didn't get pushed around too much. At times, it started to look sound. There were very few huge gaps for Illinois to exploit. It all starts with the defensive tackles, and for the most part, Vincent Valentine, Thad Randle, Aaron Curry and Maliek Collins played with sound technique and had enough starch to more than hold their own. At times, they got off blocks and made tackles, occasionally penetrating the backfield. The pass rush was effective. That's a definite step forward. Senior defensive end Jason Ankrah had a sack and a pick – possibly the best performance of his career.
The d-line often set up the Husker linebackers to make plays, and for the most part, the linebackers were solid. Redshirt freshman Michael Rose emerged and impressed with his aggressiveness and his tackling ability, leading the team with 11 stops. He flowed to the ball, took good angles and delivered some hits. David Santos (nine tackles) also looked much improved.
The learning wasn't confined to the defensive side. Redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., making his second start while Taylor Martinez recovers from turf toe, also got some valuable on-the-job training. He completed 8 of 13 passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns despite battling a swirling 25-mph wind. He missed a third TD pass when he miscalculated how much air to put under a throw to a wide-open Trey Foster on fourth-and-2 from the Illinois 3-yard line.
Armstrong has a steadiness and confidence that will pay dividends next fall. He's a calm customer. With Armstrong on the field, Nebraska converted all its third-down opportunities in the first half with the exception of Imani Cross's 3-yard loss that resulted in a safety.
Armstrong was adequate running the option, but he didn't have to do much because Ameer Abdullah ran like a Corvette among Yugos. The junior I-back had a career-best 225 yards on 20 carries and scored two touchdowns. His high-speed cornering ability made the Illinois defense look foolish. The Husker offensive line is gaining momentum and gave Abdullah a lot of room to run, but he seemed quicker than ever.
Concerns? There were several. Most notable was two missed extra points – one each by Mauro Bondi and Pat Smith. How long has it been since that happened at Kicker U? That could cost Nebraska a game in November. The punt return unit is still very shaky. Jordan Westerkamp is sure-handed, but the only time he had a chance to catch a punt and make a return, the Huskers committed a penalty.
The least excusable concern is the ongoing trouble with sideline communication to the defensive unit, which often has not been set at the snap. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis handled late-game substitutions badly, drawing two penalties that kept the Illini's last-minute drive alive, and you have to blame him for the final touchdown.
Nebraska takes its 4-1record and heads into its first road trip of the season with increased confidence that the Blackshirts can make a stop. Was it a false positive? Is there another big breakdown just around the corner? The answer lies in whether the defense continues to grow. Like any adolescent, there will be inexplicable mistakes and there's plenty of garbage to clean up, but there's hope for development.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org