LINCOLN, Neb. — Before rock bottom, there is the tipping point.
That came last year for Nebraska on third-and-7 from Illinois’ 27-yard line with one-minute left in the fourth quarter.
Ahead 13-7, the call was a bootleg run, coach Mike Riley said afterwards. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong was supposed to put a receiver in motion, fake a handoff, and run for the first-down marker. Even if he didn’t get it, the clock would bleed at least bleed to under 30 seconds, and the Huskers would likely win their first Big Ten game of the season after another play or two.
“That obviously didn’t happen,” Riley said after the game.
A botched play and an awkward throw by Armstrong stopped the clock at 55 seconds. Riley chose to go for it on fourth-and-7 instead of kicking a 45-yard field goal, and another awkward ball by Armstrong gave the Illini possession.
Six plays later, with 10 seconds left, Illinois scored a touchdown to spoil Nebraska’s season.
It was a weird game, defensive coordinator Mark Banker said. Frustrating, remembers offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf.
“It’s a disappointing thing to remember,” Riley said on Thursday.
Nebraska fell to 2-3. They’d soon fall to 3-6, their worst start since the 1950s.
Riley said this week it wasn’t the worst defeat of last year’s seven losses. That was the 55-45 loss to Purdue. That was rock bottom. But the loss at Illinois last year might have been the most eye-opening. That last offensive drive really helped change the Huskers for the better, Riley said this week.
“We tried to take a lot from that game in our offseason,” Riley said.
This season, Nebraska has been doing the polar opposite from the Illinois game.
Offensively, Armstrong’s rushing attempts have skyrocketed since last year’s Illinois game, when he ran just eight times for 38 yards. This season, Armstrong averages 13 rushes a game. In the four games before Illinois last season, he averaged just 7.25 rushes.
Armstrong completed 10 of 31 pass attempts in that Illini loss with one interception and only 105 yards. This year, Armstrong’s passing percentage is above 56 percent, a career best. And through four games, he has been intercepted only once.
Devine Ozigbo was a non-factor most of last season, but, after seven rushes for 70 yards against Illinois, Ozigbo’s carries have dramatically increased. Before that Illinois game, Ozigbo had two career carries. This season, he averages 16.5 a game.
“We certainly spent a lot of time studying all of our situations,” Riley said of the Illinois game last year.
On defense, Banker remembers the Illinois game well, particularly the 50-yard bomb from Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt to Malik Turner that put Illinois in scoring position with less than 30 seconds left.
He shakes his head when he thinks about that play.
“You can’t, you can’t give up plays like that,” Banker said.
Keeping big plays to a minimum are always a focus, Banker said, but particularly after that Illinois loss. Banker has put a great deal of emphasis in keeping the long balls to a minimum. “It’s not even the matter of limiting them, you never want them to,” Banker said. “This team or any team we play, it’s always a focus.”
So far this year, Nebraska has given up one long scoring play, a 50-yard run by Oregon running back Taj Griffin.
Maybe most of all, that Illinois loss set a trend last year of Nebraska not being able to close games. After the botched third-and-7 and coinciding game-winning Illini touchdown, Nebraska would go on to lose by two points twice the rest of the season. In both of those games, the Huskers led late in the fourth quarter.
Rehashing that Illinois loss, Riley knew that needed to be cleaned up more than anything.
“I think there’s a special emphasis to how important those seconds are, how important that execution is, and those critical situations like that,” Riley said. “And so I think that the emphasis and the preparation has probably been the best thing that’s come of that since that happened.”
Already in 2016, Nebraska has held off two teams late in the fourth quarter, against Oregon and Northwestern.
The differences in Nebraska and Illinois this year from last year are stark. Illinois is under a new coach, Lovie Smith, and are 1-2 and barely able to compete against Division I competition. Nebraska already has a marquee win over Oregon, and looks like they have a real shot at winning the Big Ten West.
Still, the scars from last year’s tipping point run deep. And Saturday will show just how far Nebraska has grown from last year, Banker said this week.
“We’ll see what we’re made of a little more in this game right here.”