Illinois vs. Nebraska: 10 Things We Learned from the Cornhuskers' Win
It was not Taylor Martinez under center, but that was not a problem for Nebraska as it took care of business against Illinois, never relinquishing its lead and winning 39-19 on Homecoming.
In Martinez's place, Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III split the quarterback duties and combined to go 11-of-19 for 186 yards and two touchdowns. The Cornhuskers probably would have been just fine handing the ball off to tailback Ameer Abdullah, who had a career day, carrying the rock 20 times for 225 yards and two touchdowns.
Armstrong and RK3 combined to outperform the Big Ten's leading passer. That's right, Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase entered the game leading the Big Ten in passing yards per game and passer rating, but he was shut down by what has been a vulnerable Nebraska defense.
The game featured just about everything you could hope for from the Cornhuskers' perspective, so let's see the 10 things we learned from Nebraska's dispatching of the Fighting Illini.
Ameer Abdullah Is the Real Deal
With Taylor Martinez out of the lineup, there was going to be more focus on shutting down Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah.
Judging by the numbers he put up, you wouldn't know it.
Abdullah enjoyed the best game of his college career, tallying 225 yards and two touchdowns, including a phenomenal run early in the second half in which he tiptoed the right sideline, broke several tackles and eventually lunged into the end zone for a 43-yard touchdown.
The junior tailback has to be considered one of the Big Ten's best following this effort, and if there was any doubt before, it no longer lingers—Abdullah is the real deal.
Kenny Bell Made One of the Year's Best Catches
Abdullah's lengthy, eventful run in the third quarter was all well and good, but there was another play that took place in the third quarter that stole the show.
With the Cornhuskers up by 18 late in the third, Armstrong dropped back to throw and fired a pass toward Kenny Bell, who was streaking up the middle of the field. With the pass appearing to be just out of his grasp, Bell reached out with one hand while jumping in the air and hauled down the pass.
Bell then trotted into the end zone and gave the "shush" sign, despite playing in front of his home fans at Memorial Stadium, drawing an unsportsmanlike penalty.
We know that the catch of the year debate is an inexact science, but there's no doubt that Bell's ranks right up there with the best of them. It was the bow that wrapped up Nebraska's impressive disposal of a conference foe.
This Was Nebraska's Best Game of 2013
And it's not even close.
Sure, this might not have been Nebraska's largest margin of victory, but it was expected to handily take care of teams like Southern Miss and South Dakota State. Coming into Saturday, the Cornhuskers were only favored to win by a field goal, so this game had all the makings of a true conference clash.
While Nebraska did manage to jump out to a comfortable lead, we've been down that road before. The Cornhuskers nearly choked away their Week 1 matchup with Wyoming and also gave away a 21-3 lead against UCLA, so there was reason to believe Nebraska would have trouble holding on against Illinois.
Instead, it put the clamp down and built its lead up to 27 before giving up a garbage-time touchdown. The offensive line was dominant and the defense was relentless and in full-out bend-but-don't-break mode. The Cornhuskers were darn near clicking on all cylinders in their best performance of the 2013 season.
Quincy Enunwa Is an Elite Red-Zone Threat
Defenses should know this by now: When Nebraska enters the red zone, you better know exactly where No. 18 is.
That would be wide receiver Quincy Enunwa, who now has six touchdown receptions through five games for the Cornhuskers. He added another one to his total against Illinois in the first quarter when he caught a four-yard pass from Armstrong for six.
It's Enunwa's size that makes him such an imposing threat once Nebraska draws closer to paydirt, but he also has great ball skills and is able to go up and win jump balls against smaller defensive backs. It's an effective weapon to have if you're Nebraska, a team that can also turn to a reliable back in Ameer Abdullah, ask Taylor Martinez to do it with his legs or look for other viable options in the passing game.
Third-Down Blitzing Was Huge
It's really no secret that Nebraska likes to bring pressure on third down, but even though Illinois knew it was coming, it didn't always know where it was coming from.
On Saturday, it was cornerback Ciante Evans getting after Nathan Scheelhaase, notching a key sack as well as a hit that resulted in an interception for Jason Ankrah, who also had himself a nice game.
It wasn't just Evans generating pressure on the quarterback. The Cornhuskers also got sacks from Jared Afalava and Ankrah, and the Nebraska defense got in the Illinois backfield all day long, totaling a remarkable 12 tackles for a loss.
It was the blitzes Nebraska dialed up and where it sent pressure that was the key to keeping Scheelhaase uncomfortable and the Fighting Illini off the board.
Tommy Armstrong Will Be Special
With Martinez out dealing with turf toe, Nebraska has been afforded a glimpse into the future. You never want to see a player miss time due to injury, but this has been the perfect time to get redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong some playing time.
That's because the level of competition hasn't been all that high, although it was believed Illinois would put up more of a fight against Nebraska. Not only has Armstrong been getting some valuable playing time that will aid him down the road, but he has been thriving.
Against Illinois, Armstrong went 8-of-13 for 135 yards and two touchdowns, and he also avoided turning the ball over. He performed better than fellow quarterback Ron Kellogg III, and Armstrong also showed he has the ability to take off running, pulling off a razzle-dazzle 13-yard run on a broken play late in the game.
His mobility isn't at the level of Martinez by any means, but he's got the tools to turn into something special at Nebraska, and he's only a freshman.
But Taylor Martinez Is Still the Best Option
There is always a risk involved when choosing to alternate quarterbacks within a game, and while it hasn't come back to haunt Nebraska, it would be in better shape if Martinez was healthy and under center.
That's not taking anything away from Armstrong or Kellogg, but having that stability at quarterback is important, and Martinez just has far more experience than the men that combined to replace him against Illinois.
Certainly, you can designate at what times you want which quarterback to enter the game, but that can ruin the flow of the game and result in costly mistakes. Nebraska would likely be better off rolling with Armstrong or Kellogg, not Armstrong and Kellogg.
But that seems like an unlikely scenario, so the sooner Martinez is able to return—it could be Nebraska's next game—the better.
There Might Be a Kicking Controversy at Nebraska
For a program so renowned for producing strong special teams play, saying that there is a kicking controversy is like speaking a foreign language around Lincoln, Neb. But when a place kicker misses on not one, but two extra points in one game, it makes you wonder if it's time to proceed in a different direction.
Granted, winds were gusting over 25 miles per hour, and Pat Smith was able to convert on each of his two field-goal attempts—the longest being 32 yards—but those two points were lucky not to cost Nebraska. Head coach Bo Pelini appeared to completely lose faith in Smith, inserting Mauro Bondi to convert the team's final extra point.
Perhaps that was just to put a scare in Smith, who is a senior, but it was a little unusual to see someone usually so reliable to have multiple misses on the easiest kick in football. We'll have to keep tabs and see if there is any sort of kicking controversy moving forward, especially if this issue rears its ugly head once again.
There Are Still Too Many Mental Lapses
Nebraska has all the talent in the world on defense. It's good at creating turnovers and shows flashes of being something special, but on more than one occasion, the defense was either lined up improperly or not even lined up at all.
That's inexcusable to see at this point of the season, especially when coming off a bye week. There was also a late-hit called on Jared Afalava, who earlier in the game received an ear-full from Pelini for completely whiffing on a tackle.
But the mental lapses also leaked over to the offense, where there were three fumbles—only one was lost—as well as a safety. Nebraska racked up eight penalties that resulted in 71 yards, and yet somehow, it was never in jeopardy of losing its grip on the lead.
Nebraska Has Put the Turmoil Behind Them
Things were looking grim for Nebraska football just a few weeks back following its collapse against UCLA on its home turf as well as Bo Pelini's f-bomb-ridden tirade that was leaked from a few years ago. The woes on defense were still evident, losing big leads was still an issue and it didn't appear much had changed at all from 2012.
But a bye week can work wonders, and that may have been exactly what happened for the Cornhuskers. They looked like a completely different team against Illinois despite missing Martinez, as they locked down on defense when it mattered most, pounded the ball down the defense's throat and slammed the door shut late.
For as bleak as things appeared for Nebraska, it is now 1-0 in conference play with plenty of football games left to be had. The only question is whether or not those demons return somewhere down the road, but for now, it looks like the Cornhuskers are relaxed and playing at the level they know they're capable of.