So, with the line in Vegas dropping and predictions of upset and high scores, should Nebraska fans be thrilled about their 39-19 win over Illinois? Yes and no, but mostly yes. Nebraska's defense played its best game of the season, and with these skill players, it really doesn't matter who plays quarterback.
Two smooth games by Tommy Armstrong, and now there is a real reason for Bo Pelini not to go back to Taylor Martinez when Martinez is fully healthy. Armstrong will (likely) get one more chance to make a statement against Purdue, and Martinez will get two more weeks of rest. The Minnesota game could be when it's time for Pelini to settle on a quarterback. Let the Twitter lobbying begin.
So what should Pelini do when Martinez returns? Use a package with Armstrong coming off the bench? Maybe, but so far Armstrong has gone 20-for-28 in his two starts, and aside from missing a wide open Trey Foster in the end zone late, gives his receivers a chance on every throw. Granted, Armstrong has only 97 rush yards on 27 carries, but who is to say Martinez is going to be healthy enough be the dynamic runner he has been? The only wild card in Martinez's favor is his big game/comeback experience, but Armstrong will have had four starts before Nebraska plays Northwestern, so he would not be cold.
Armstrong got significant help from his defense and special teams. The Husker's first four drives Saturday started at their own 43, 31, 28, and 28, and all yielded points. Illinois had just two drives that didn't start deeper than their own 25; both of those drives that started beyond the Illini's 40 resulted in zero points.
While the wind in the first quarter helped, it's a world of difference when Nebraska only needs to make one twenty yard play to get to mid-field or their own forty. Credit Nebraska's defense too for not allowing the Illini to get intermediate yardage and pin Nebraska deep, aside from the two pre-halftime possessions. If Jordan Westerkamp isn't afraid to fair catch a punt, Nebraska should get out from behind the field position 8-ball.
One thing that has to be done in winnable home games is get backups ready for their time. If it's so important for Tim Beck to get Ron Kellogg III a series while the game was still competitive, why did Terrell Newby only have four carries? Ameer Abdullah had three carries on Nebraska's final full drive of the game, mileage Beck should have spared him. Last year, Braylon Heard had 52 carries and Imani Cross had 55 as the reserve backs, and Heard clearly felt slighted. Right now, Newby has 40 carries in five games, and averages 5.7 yards per carry. While he doesn't need a twenty carry game, Newby can get a productive 75-90 carries this year, and certainly could take more when Nebraska has huge leads
I don't know that the Blackshirts turned a corner, but they made critical-situation plays. Early in the game, the Blackshirts forced a turnover and a turnover on downs when the Illini were close to scoring. Pelini didn't blitz as much as he has in the past, but when he did, the blitz got home. Eight out of twelve Illinois drives lasted five plays or fewer. With two weeks to prepare, it would stand to reason that Pelini and John Papuchis could come with a game plan for holding Illinois to its lowest totals in points of the year and a hundred yards below its total yards average.
The two defensive plays that stood out to me were the sack on Illinois' third-and-goal in the first half, and Randy Gregory's chasing down a screen pass that could have gone for thirty yards or longer. Both were situations where Illinois could have done a lot more, but didn't.
Final thought: In spite of the opponent, this was a good momentum shifter for Nebraska. The young defense still has time to grow, but this team can't lull itself to sleep like it did during its six game, luck-based win streak a year ago.
Derek Johnson is a Seward, Nebraska native who works for his family's organic farm seed company, Blue River Hybrids, and is a freelance writer and commission photographer. He has been a contributor to Husker Max since 2013, and is a former contributor to the website Husker Locker. Visit his blog, derekjohnsonmuses.com, and follow him on Twitter @derekjohnson05.