LINCOLN, Neb. — Up 17-16 over Illinois early in the fourth quarter, after the Huskers defense forced the Illini offense to punt, Nebraska senior center Dylan Utter ran back onto the field and felt a little deja vu.
A year ago against Illinois, Nebraska took the field in the fourth quarter up 13-7, and a few first downs would’ve given Nebraska a road victory. But it couldn’t convert on a third-and-7, and Illinois scored late to win 14-13.
That memory flashed in Utter’s head.
“Last year we were kind of in that same situation and we didn’t convert,” Utter said. “So that was kind of the emphasis when we were on the sideline before we ran out, just don’t let that happen again.”
Nebraska enacted its revenge of last season’s loss by doing what it couldn’t last year: running the ball in the fourth quarter.
It began with a 5-yard run from senior running back Terrell Newby. Then a 7-yard run. And another 7-yard run. Two yards. Three yards. No gain. Five yards.
It’s not sexy football, or even really entertaining football.
But short, simple, easy, bit-by-bit, 4- and 5-yard runs from the tailback are what Nebraska is making its identity this year, and it’s what finally broke open the game against Illinois on Saturday.
Slowly and methodically, the Huskers rolled down the field and scored, this time on a 6-yard pass from quarterback Tommy Armstrong to tight end Trey Foster to give Nebraska breathing room with a 24-16 lead.
On the drive before that, the Huskers offense essentially did the same thing to take the lead.
After Illinois extended its lead to 16-10 on a 33-yard field goal, Nebraska began what would become an 18-play, 75-yard drive that chewed up 10 minutes of game clock and lasted longer than an episode of Seinfeld.
And in that drive, the Huskers ran the ball 14 times, 13 for less than five yards.
The crowd got restless. But the offensive line thrived.
“We always preach about those 4- and 5-yard runs,” Utter said after Nebraska’s 31-16 win. “They say you want to average 3 (yards) a carry so we’re satisfied with 4- or 5-yard runs.”
After those 18 plays, Newby barreled into the end zone from the 3-yard line and gave Nebraska a 17-16 lead. It capped Nebraska’s longest drive since at least 2000, according to the Huskers athletics department.
It was tough going in the beginning, running on an Illini defensive line that offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf called “scary” earlier in the week.
But come the fourth quarter, it’s what Nebraska leaned on.
“It was not easy, we knew it wouldn’t be easy going into the game,” Langsdorf said. “I felt like it was going to be a struggle and I think that our guys just continued to battle.”
Nebraska ended with 49 rushes for 203 yards. The Huskers ran the ball twice as many times as they threw it.
And they knew, eventually, that the Illinois defensive line would break.
Leading 24-16, after another three-and-out from Illinois, Nebraska took the field and Utter and Newby could tell this was it.
“We saw them in the fourth quarter kind of just huffing and puffing and kind of complaining,” Utter said. “Once those guys get tired and you’re not, then you break one off.”
On second-and-3 from the Nebraska 37, Newby found a hole and exploded into the open field, cruising 63 yards into the end zone to put away Illinois for good.
“I mean, it was wide open,” Newby said of the hole in the defense. “It’s one of the things we always say, those short runs will turn into long runs later on in the game. We keep at it, keep at it, so it was good that it payed off.”