LINCOLN, Neb. — In real time, it took longer than it takes to order and eat a Runza. In game-time minutes, it lasted longer than most press conferences.
In number of plays, it was nearly twice as long as Nebraska’s average this season.
Nebraska’s 18-play pilgrimage to retake the lead 17-16 against Illinois last Saturday spanned half of the third quarter and a chunk of the fourth and possibly saved the season.
Because without that drive, Nebraska maybe loses to Illinois, which would have had a drastic ripple effect on not only Nebraska’s chances of winning the Big Ten West but the overall psyche of Husker Nation.
The drive consumed 10 minutes, 42 seconds of game clock, 30 minutes of real time and had all the elements of this 2016 Nebraska team. Tough runs. Young players making plays. Rolling the dice on fourth down.
It deserves a closer look, so here’s a play-by-play breakdown of the drive that saved Nebraska’s season.
1st-and-10 at the Nebraska 25, 7:40 left in the third quarter, Illinois leads Nebraska 16-10.
Handoff to Devine Ozigbo up the middle for a gain of 4. (Runs on first down will become a theme on this drive.)
2nd-and-6 at the Nebraska 29
Handoff to Ozigbo up the middle for a gain of 3.
3rd-and-3 at the Nebraska 32
Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf loves throwing on third down.
Usually, third-and-short is TE Cethan Carter territory, and third-and-long is Stanley Morgan Jr.’s turf. But when Nebraska needs a big play, it almost always looks for senior WR Jordan Westerkamp. (See: Oregon game.)
On third-and-3, Armstrong sent Westerkamp in motion to drag a linebacker to cover him in space. Westerkamp runs a tremendous route and creates plenty of space for Armstrong to rocket a ball in.
Armstrong hit Westerkamp in the hands for a 6-yard gain, Nebraska got the first down, but Westerkamp took a knee in the back. He left the game and was taken to the hospital. He was released shortly after the game.
1st-and-10 at the Nebraska 38
Ozigbo runs up the middle for 5 yards.
2nd-and-5 at the Nebraska 43
Quick slant throw to De’Mornay Pierson-El for 10 yards and a first down. This would be Nebraska’s only set of downs on this drive where it converted a first down in two plays.
1st-and-10 at the Illinois 47
Stretch handoff to Ozigbo, no gain. This is the only handoff of the drive in which Nebraska ran to the outside. Illinois won the edge all afternoon.
2nd-and-10 at the Illinois 47
Armstrong’s designed run was sniffed out by Illini defensive lineman Dawuane Smoot, who dominated up front all day. Smoot snagged Armstrong’s foot and forced Nebraska into a long third down.
3rd-and-12 at the Illinois 49
There was really nothing going on for the Huskers on this play. Right tackle Nick Gates got beat by his man and Armstrong was flushed out of the pocket with nowhere to throw. He took off running near the sideline but was thrown down by Illini defensive lineman Chunky Clements.
Flags went flying. A pretty easy horse-collar call. And Nebraska was saved by an Illini penalty.
1st-and-10 at the Illinois 34
Inside handoff to Ozigbo for 2 yards.
After this play, Ozigbo hobbled off with an ankle injury with about 3 minutes left to go in the third quarter and did not return. From here on out, the bulk of the carries would go to senior Terrell Newby, who was having a difficult time breaking through the Illini front four.
2nd-and-8 at the Illinois 32
An inside screen to Newby goes for 5 yards.
3rd-and-3 at the Illinois 27
Newby gets stopped in the backfield on third down and loses a yard. Even with fullback Luke McNitt as the lead blocker, the Illini front four swallowed Newby.
4th-and-4 at the Illinois 28
With how much Nebraska coach Mike Riley has rolled the dice on fourth down this season, he’s officially Riverboat Riley. On fourth-and-4 from the Illinois 28, Riley goes for it instead of kicking a field goal.
Armstrong threw low to Morgan Jr. The ball bounced off the turf incomplete, but Morgan’s defender was all over him. Illinois was called for a pass interference and for the second time on the drive Nebraska was saved by an opportune Illini penalty.
1st-and-10 at the Illinois 23
Jet sweep to De’Mornay Pierson-El goes for 4 yards.
The jet sweep is something that has kind of gone on the back burner for the Huskers offense. Riley said he doesn’t think it’s an “identity run” so it was a little shocking to see that play in the red zone.
2nd-and-6 at the Illinois 19
Newby is blown up in the backfield by a blitzing Illini cornerback for a 2-yard loss on the final play of the third quarter. Illinois goes into the fourth quarter up 16-10.
3rd-and-8 at the Illinois 21
Armstrong drops back and throws to Old Reliable (new nickname for Morgan Jr.’s third-down alter ego.)
Morgan Jr. caught the ball on a crossing pattern and reached for the first-down marker. The ball came loose afterward but his knee was clearly down.
The call was reviewed twice. These short breaks are what senior center Dylan Utter said were saviors on this long drive.
Utter said the 18-play drive didn’t seem that long since there was so much stoppage. At this point, there have been three long pauses on the drive: Westerkamp’s injury, the end of the quarter and now this review. This was crucial for Nebraska to catch its breath and have a few unplanned timeouts to figure out what would work against the Illini.
After the review, Nebraska was given the first down.
1st-and-10 at the Illinois 13
Newby runs up the middle for a gain of 6.
Nebraska abandoned the outside run game after a while. The Huskers found a crease in the line on the side opposite of Smoot and attacked it late in the game.
2nd-and-4 at the Illinois 7
Newby runs up the middle for a gain of 2. An Illinois player goes down, giving Nebraska its fourth breather in this drive.
3rd-and-2 at the Illinois 5
Langsdorf decided to go with an option play on this third down, which is pretty rare for Nebraska’s offense this year. Armstrong pitched it to Newby, who had the edge but tried to cut up the middle and found a group of Illinois defenders in his face. Nebraska was stopped short to set up fourth-and-1.
4th-and-1 at the Illinois 4
For the second time on this drive, Riverboat Riley goes for it, this time in the red zone.
Nebraska lines up in a bunch formation with Newby in the backfield and no fullback. Newby ran up the middle to the right but was caught by the feet in the backfield as he dived forward. The measuring sticks came out and it was close. Really close.
The spot was reviewed (another long pause for the offense) but it was nearly impossible to tell where Newby’s knee hit the ground in the big pile of lineman surrounding him. So the spot stood. First down Nebraska.
By how much, coach?
1st-and-goal at the Illinois 3
Armstrong hands the ball off to Newby and, per usual, he runs up the middle, this time to the left through a gaping hole created by LG Sam Hahn. Newby rumbles into the end zone from 3 yards out.
After a Drew Brown extra point, Nebraska retook the lead 17-16.
The drive took 18 plays (two first downs by penalty are not counted as plays) and consumed 10 minutes, 42 seconds off the clock, possibly the longest drive in school history in terms of time. The Nebraska Athletic Department is still looking into it. As of Monday, it’s the longest drive since at least 1990.
The Huskers scored again on their next two possessions to win 31-16.
It was a drive that encompasses everything Nebraska wants to be and everything the coaches and players have been talking about since fall camp.
Nebraska wants to run the ball, so it did. Riley likes this team and trusts his players, so he twice went for it on fourth down.
It’s a drive that Nebraska can hang its hat on, since it led to the comeback victory win and solidified the Huskers’ place on top of the Big Ten West.