CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - After losing to Northern Illinois on Sept. 16, Nebraska had a small window to get things figured out.
NU had games against two bottom feeder Big Ten teams in Rutgers and Illinois, and they delivered exactly the results the Huskers needed.
The Blackshirts played their third complete game in a row, and held the Illini to 199 yards of total offense - the second week in a row they've held an opponent under 200 yards. However, most importantly this offense finally looked like what it was supposed to look like.
After a rocky start to the season, quarterback Tanner Lee looked like the guy we saw in August, and the the running game gave the offense the balance it needs to succeed. Friday night's 28-6 win at Illinois (2-2, 0-1) was just what the doctor ordered for Nebraska (3-2, 2-0), as they get ready to step into the ring against a Big Ten heavyweight next weekend.
"Obviously we needed all this growth over the last two games to get into a position to compete against Wisconsin," NU head coach Mike Riley said. "All those things coming together, it's pretty exciting."
Lee finished the night 17-of-24 for 246 yards and three touchdowns - most importantly he had zero interceptions. He looked like the guy NFL experts like Phil Savage raved about in August.
"It probably is really good timing in that regard," Riley said of Lee's big night. "I think that we also saw the poise that (Lee) has. He can kind of hang in there and wait for somebody to get open and get the ball to them."
Friday was also the first time we saw both the offense and defense show up together in the same game.
When NU's offense made a mistake, the defense was there to pick them back up. Meanwhile the offense controlled the tempo of the game and gave the defense plenty of time to rest and make adjustments on the sideline.
"We've been playing good football," senior linebacker Weber said. "We kept the points down and kept some of the yardage down. We limited the big plays, which is something we've been harping on - make teams earn it. I think those drives in the first half are perfect examples of that of them marching it down the field, and we bowed up and got a stop. That's what we have to continue to do in Big Ten play."
Now we are going to find out if these last two weeks were fools gold, or a sign of what's to come.
Two top 10 teams will make their way into Memorial Stadium, starting with Wisconsin on Saturday night.
"We'll see," Foster said when asked if this team is ready for Wisconsin. "I'm not going to be the one that comes out and says something crazy. I'm going to tell you this, Wisconsin has always been on my target list and I really, really would love to be able to have a win against this team. They look good just being able to watch them in the games I have. I'm ready for a good game."
Now on to the breakdown...
What I saw on Friday
***The early targeting penalty on Illinois was a game changing moment. The Huskers were about to punt the ball to Illinois after a third down incompletion. That sparked their first scoring drive and set the tone for the game.
***The most meaningless stat of the game was Illinois held the ball for nearly 12 minutes of the first quarter. For all the time of possession they had early, they only managed 3 points in the first half.
***Michael Decker has really added something at center. His ability to get out and pull is big. On Devine Ozigbo’s touchdown run he made a great block in space.
***Chris Weber made a big early tackle for loss on third down. It took Illinois out of field goal range and kept the game at 14-3.
***How about Ben Stille. His emergence on this defense has been a spark of energy. He made as many impact plays on Friday as anyone.
***Bob Diaco has really got this group playing great team defense. The key stat is they did not allow one play over 20 yards. For the second game in a row they also held the opponent under 200 yards of total offense.
***Tanner Lee continues to stay the course. He was the same guy today after the game as he was the last two weeks. His level of consistency to the game may be one of his biggest strengths. Ozigbo told me after the game he’s probably only seen Lee rattled once, and it was for like 30 seconds.
***I chucked this morning reading the Champaign paper seeing six of their eight writers picked the Illini to win this game. This is a team that’s going to have a hard time winning any Big Ten games from here on out. They are clearly building for the future.
***I sure hope this is the last Friday night game Nebraska plays in. The juice just isn't worth the squeeze, and the atmosphere in Champaign this weekend was a non-factor.
The final grade out
Rushing offense: B
The Huskers got 185 yards on 34 attempts from their backs and receivers. That was more than enough to give this offense the balance it needed to succeed. Ozigbo finished with 106 yards on 18 carries to help NU run out the clock. 11 of his 18 carries came on the final drive where he racked up over half his yards on the night as NU chewed up nearly 7 minutes of clock. That’s how you finish out a game.
Passing offense: A-
This looked more like the Tanner Lee we saw over the spring and fall camp. He was comfortable in the pocket and had plenty of time to make his reads and set his feet. Lee only had one questionable throw off his back foot, but other than that he was perfect. If he can go 17-of-24 for 246 yards this offense is going to be hard slow down. Having Stanley Morgan back tonight was also a big boost for the offense, as he finished with 96 yards receiving on 8 catches.
Rushing defense: A-
Really all the Illini wanted to do was run the ball and shorten the game. The Blackshirts lived up the challenge holding Illinois to just 93 yards rushing. They particularly came up with some big plays in short yardage situations, and didn’t allow a play longer than 19 yards on the ground. It was a run where quarterback Chase Crouch broke three tackles in space. That was probably the only big miscue on the night against the running game.
Passing defense: B
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was perfectly content with giving Illinois’s receivers some big cushions at times. He was giving them a few short throws underneath knowing that they weren’t going to beat the Huskers deep. Nebraska held Illini QB Chase Crouch under 100 yards passing on the night, and only allowed long plays of 19, 18 and 18 yards in the passing game.
Special teams: C
Special teams were really a non-factor on Friday. There were no attempted field goals by NU, and just two punts in the game. They also didn’t get anything in the return game, and De’Mornay Pierson-El bobbled one of his punt return attempts that probably should’ve been fair caught.
Sean Callahan can be reached at email@example.com and he can be heard each day at 6:45 am and 5:05 pm on Big Red Radio 1110 KFAB in Omaha during the football season. He can also be seen on KETV Channel 7 in Omaha during the fall and each week he appears on NET's Big Red Wrap-Up Tuesday's at 7 pm.