It was a very windy, chilly morning at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
After all, it was the first time Nebraska and Illinois have faced off as Big Ten foes. It’s was also the first time since the 80s these two teams played. Throw in the strange weather and another game without Nebraska’s four-year general (Taylor Martinez)… pre-game had that strange feel to it.
When all was said and done, the Huskers wrapped up another conference opener with some big plays on defense and offense – defeating the Fighting Illini 39-19, and sealing another Homecoming win.
“I liked a lot of things we did defensively,” Head coach Bo Pelini say. “I saw definite progress, but nowhere near where we need to be.”
The defense changed it up a bit during the bye week. Two new faces were in the starting lineup for today’s game, including Jared Afalava (8 tackles, 1 sack) and Michael Rose (team-leading 11 tackles, 1 for loss). Defensive coordinator John Papuchis says the young guys, including David Santos, were impressive.
One streak did come to an end today. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste did not have an interception, ending a five-game streak, but the team’s INT streak continued from a very unlikely source. Defensive linemen Jason Ankrah got his first-career pick in the third quarter, thanks to pressure from Ciante Evans on Illinois quarterback Nate Scheelhaase.
In the end, the Blackshirts held Illinois to 372 yards. Scheelhaase threw for 13-26, 135 yards and was sacked three times. Running back Josh Ferguson rushed for 115 yards on 19 carries.
The game was full of “ooh” and “ahh” plays. For starters, wide receiver Kenny Bell has a highlight film catch to follow Ankrah’s interception. He reeled in a high thrown ball from Armstrong – with one hand – and took it to the end zone for a 37-yard touchdown. It was Armstrong’s second touchdown pass on the day.
“I got lucky” Bell says.
“I told him he saved my behind,” says Armstrong, when asked about the high-sailing throw. “The wind was really carrying that ball.”
The wind was definitely a problem. On several occasions, Illinois opted to go for it on fourth down instead of a field goal. Punts were also very low and shallow. Nebraska’s special teams also struggled with two extra points missed. Despite the wind issues, Pelini called it “inexcusable”.
One thing not inexcusable was the performance of running back Ameer Abdullah. A career-high 228 yards in 20 carries and two touchdowns… Illinois had no answer for him. He also had one catch for 15 yards. Running backs coach Ron Brown was pleased with Abdullah’s performance – not just the career day, but his route runs and blocks as well.
Nebraska (4-1, 1-0) now takes the Big Red show on the road next week, facing another unfamiliar and first-time Big Ten foe… Purdue.