91 plays later and 624 yards later, Nebraska’s offense still wasn’t satisfied. They may get their shot at satisfaction next week against a high-profile opponent and a chance to stake an early claim to the Big Ten.
Behind a dominating rushing performance and an opportunistic defense, 19th-ranked Nebraska moved to 5-o on the season with a comfortable 45-14 win over Illinois on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln. With the win, the Huskers set up a huge game next weekend at Michigan State, the defending Big Ten champions.
Wearing their alternate uniforms, there was little changed from Nebraska’s successful offensive formula from a week ago and a 41-31 win over Miami. The Heisman trophy candidate Abdullah was once again spectacular, with 22 carries for 208 yards and three touchdowns as the Huskers took control in the second quarter and never looked back. Abdullah’s 208 yards moved him into second place on the all-time Nebraska rushing yardage list, passing Ahman Green in the process.
Nebraska took the opening kickoff and marched 75 yards in seven plays, with Abdullah capping off the drive with a 12-yard touchdown run. However, Illinois would answer with a 41-yard touchdown run from Josh Ferguson to tie the score at 7-7. Abdullah would add an 8-yard touchdown run and a 2-yard touchdown run on the night before retiring to the bench midway through the third quarter. By that point, it did not matter as the Huskers were well on their way to their fourth double-digit victory of the season.
“We’re happy for the win. Like I told the team, I think there were some positives from this win, but a lot of things we need to get cleaned up,” head coach Bo Pelini said after the game. “I didn’t like the way we started defensively. We have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot early on in the games defensively.”
“We eventually settled down and played pretty well. But there were some things that were inexcusable that happened early in the game,” Pelini added.
Illinois had no answer for Nebraska’s brand of smash mouth football, as the Huskers rolled up 458 yards rushing and a whopping 6.5 yards per carry. With starting quarterback Wes Lunt out of the lineup with an apparent injury, backup Reilly O’Toole stepped in for the Illini and had a tough time against the Nebraska defense. O’Toole finished the night 17-of-38 for 261 yards, with one touchdown and three interceptions. Conversely, Tommy Armstrong ended his night 10-of-21 for 166 yards and one touchdown and one interception. Kenny Bell added a 63-yard touchdown grab and finished the night with 105 yards receiving on five catches.
It’s the third time this season Abdullah has rushed for over 200 yards in a game. The senior from Homewood, Alabama has racked up 833 yards rushing through five games, with 10 total touchdowns. Abdullah’s performance was certainly not surprising to Pelini.
“I like everything I see from Ameer. He’s a pretty special player,” Pelini said.
Illinois head coach Tim Beckman agreed, heaping praise on the senior running back.
“I think that personally, he is probably as good as there is in the country,” Beckman said. “He is very good. Their offensive line is very good. I think Ameer would be the first one to tell you that.”
Although Abdullah did leave the game before the fourth quarter after getting dinged up, Pelini says Abdullah will be alright going forward.
“He got a little bruise. We felt the game was in hand, so we pulled the plug on him early in the third quarter and I thought that was the right thing to do.”
“Obviously, we have a lot of good running backs.”
Imani Cross finished over 100 yards with 109 yards on 22 carries and one touchdown, getting the most action since his arrival in Lincoln three seasons ago. The junior said it felt good to get more carries this week and help the offense continue their dominance.
“It was really fun to get that kind of action and contribute to the team,” Cross said. “I just did my role and played my part.”
Armstrong added 10 carries for 66 yards and Jordan Nelson added 35 yards. Terrell Newby added 34 yards rushing, including Nebraska’s final score on the night, a 6-yard touchdown run with 4:58 left to play in the game. Nebraska ran the ball a whopping 70 times, while passing it only 21. That’s not a bad ratio according to offensive guard Mike Moudy.
“As an offensive lineman, you just want to run the ball,” Moudy said. “Sometimes passes happen and you just have to live with it and give the quarterback protection and time. For the most part though, we just want to run it.”
Defensively, the Huskers forced three turnovers for a second straight week and limited Illinois to 339 yards of total offense. Cornerback Daniel Davie had two interceptions, while safety Nate Gerry added one in the second quarter, which he nearly took back for a touchdown. Randy Gregory appears to be returning to form, adding 2 1/2 sacks as the defensive line harassed O’Toole and the Illini offensive line all night long. Linebacker Zaire Anderson led the team with nine total tackles.
A win over the 9th ranked Spartans next week would be the first road win over a top 10 team for the Huskers since a defeat of 2nd-ranked Washington in 1997. It’s certainly something that the Nebraska players are looking forward to, including offensive tackle Alex Lewis.
“I can’t wait. That’s all I gotta say,” Lewis said after the game. “It’s going to be a very good game up in East Lansing.”
Moudy agreed, saying it’s a big test for the team.
“Stakes just get higher from this point on. As the road goes on, you’ve got more to lose but you’ve got more to gain.”
Abdullah will be fine going forward according to Pelini, while the same can be said for cornerback Josh Mitchell, who left the game in the fourth quarter with what appeared to be a knee injury. Pelini said the senior would be ok but he had worried him a little.
“He gave me a little scare. I thought it was going to be a bad one, but he’s good,” Pelini said. “It was actually his hip more than his knee, which is good news.”
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. in front of a national television audience on ABC. It’s the first time Nebraska has started 5-0 since the 2010 season. Illinois dropped to 3-2 with the loss.