My wife ran in an Oktoberfest run early Saturday morning. Naturally, I was there in red. I struck up a conversation with a Michigan fan. As it concluded, I wished him luck. He did the same. I confidently replied “I don’t think we are going to need it today.” I was that sure the Huskers would roll. In my preview I said that the Huskers would “grind Illinois into a fine powder.” I was eating those words, and my lower lip, as the Huskers trailed early in the 4th quarter. For the better part of the afternoon it seemed that Nebraska was hell bent on giving this one away. If it wasn’t penalties, it was a redzone fumble, or shotty defense. For the 3rd straight week the Big Red were in an absolute battle deep into this game. True to form, this club owned the 4th quarter and came away victorious. Give credit to the Illini. They did not play like a 1-2 team. They had this fella sweating bullets all afternoon.
Through 5 games it is now apparent that Nebraska has a few holes on defense. Specifically, the defensive line. Illinois, who had previously been listless running the ball, averaged nearly 6 yards per rush Saturday. The holes were gaping. The LBs can only do so much. We all knew that this DL would be under manned, but that is becoming painfully evident. The pass rush is poor also. If Mark Banker wants to get to opposing QBs, he has to blitz and expose the secondary. That is not a good spot to be in as a playcaller. As poor as the defense was at times Saturday, they answered the bell and made a few key stops. After Nebraska took the lead on an 11 minute drive, the defense stepped up with a 3 and out. Then after NU extended the lead to 8, the defense again forced a 3 and out. Those 2 series went a long way toward winning this game. Ultimately for all the blunders, missed assignments and poor play this unit made plays when it had to. That deserves some kudos. This defense is far from perfect. It has a long way to go. Frankly I have serious doubts if it can be a dominating unit with the talent on hand. These problems aren’t going away. But for today this defense played well enough. Not great, not by a mile, but well enough in key situations for this team to improve to 5-0.
The offense Saturday was not playing with a full deck. Wide Receiver Alonzo Moore and Guard Tanner Farmer did not play. Cethan Carter, Jordan Westercamp, David Knevel and Devine Ozigbo all left the game with injuries. Those are major cogs in the offensive wheel. That left the offense undermanned and it showed. The offensive line sorely missed Farmer and then Knevel as it was unable to push Illinois around the way I thought it would. Tommy Armstrong’s safety blanket Cethan Carter would have come in handy as he escaped oncoming defenders all afternoon. Give the Illinois defense credit for confounding the NU offense for the better part of the afternoon with blitzes and other pressures. They had NU on their heels. But also give the Huskers credit for a gritty 2nd half. Down 16-10 the offense embarked on an 18 play, 75 yard TD drive that took nearly 11 minutes off the clock. That’s right, 11 minutes. Along the way Nebraska was twice bailed out by penalties on 3rd down and got an ultra favorable spot on 4th down inside the 10 yard line. Still, that is a big boy drive that completely flipped the momentum of the game. After a 3 and out, NU did it again this time with a 6 minute drive. That took the wind out of the sails of the Illini and secured the win.
During those 2 game winning, perhaps season saving drives Nebraska leaned heavily on Terrell Newby. He wasn’t Walter Payton or anything, but the dude was durable and gutsy. This was his best game in scarlet and cream. Good for him. I’ve been tough on Newby. His performance does not change my ultimate opinion of him, but he did show incredible grit. Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf put this one on his shoulders. Newby ran 16 times for 113 yards in the 4th quarter alone!! I’ll admit, I did not think he had that kind of performance in him. With Ozigbo hurt, and Mikale Wilbon in the dog house after a red zone fumble, Newby ran 29 times for 140 yards and 2 Tds. He also caught 2 passes for 26 yards including a pivotal 3rd down reception on the go ahead drive. Newby’s biggest play was a 63 yard run that salted the game away for good. I’ve gained a new respect for Newby after this ballsy performance. On a tough day for this offense, Newby stepped up and was the difference.
Make no mistake, this was not a good performance. The defense was generally shotty, there was missed tackles, and assignments. The offense sputtered as well and there were a slew of missed opportunities. A performance like this will get you beat, especially against good teams. Illinois does not qualify. But, like last week, a win is a win. This team dug deep and collectively made plays when it had to. This is a game the 2015 Huskers lose. That is a good sign. When a team consistently plays close games they are able to draw from that experience. This team is used to being in tough games after the last month. That experience is invaluable. It pays off. Next up is a bye. This team needs to get healthy first and foremost. There is also plenty of work to be done to improve. The race for the Big 10 west will no doubt get more and more interesting. Currently, the Huskers are in the drivers seat after Wisconsin and Iowa both lost Saturday. But performances like the one Saturday will not be good enough to earn a trip to Indy. I hope Mike Riley is pounding that point home this week.