LINCOLN, Neb. — For awhile there, it really felt like 2015.
When Illinois led 16-10 in the fourth quarter, it really looked like the Illini were going to knock off the No. 15 team in the country, and punt Mike Riley and Nebraska back into limbo.
Instead, with an odyssey of a drive that took 18 plays and half of a sitcom episode, the Huskers took a 17-16 lead and closed out the Illini for their fifth win of the season.
Here are five things we learned from Nebraska’s 31-16 win.
- Nebraska still unable to start hot
The Huskers scored on their first drive for the first time this season. With almost no issues, Nebraska methodically drove 75 yards down the field, with two great throws from Tommy Armstrong extending the drive, both to WR Stanley Morgan Jr.
Besides the special teams issues, that’s been the main concern for Husker coaches, is starting slow.
That proved to be true, despite the touchdown.
The Husker defense had a disastrous second quarter. Illinois QB Wes Lunt and the Illini offense had their way up front, averaging seven yards per play on their way to a 13-10 halftime lead.
The Huskers out-gained Illinois but the one interception from Armstrong and a few big plays from Lunt and running back Kendrick Foster, Illinois was able to take the 90,000 Husker fans in Memorial Stadium out of the equation and surprise everyone with a halftime lead.
- The injury bug bites
Senior WR Alonzo Moore and sophomore OT Tanner Farmer did not play on Staurday, and in the first half, two more Husker starters went down with injuries.
Tight end Cethan Carter went off into the locker room early in the first quarter with an apparent shoulder injury. Then, in the second quarter, senior WR Jordan Westerkamp rolled an ankle after a 21-yard pass play.
Westerkamp came back, limping a bit, and then got hurt again after getting drilled in the back mid-way through the third quarter. Later, sophomore RB Devine Ozigbo also went to the locker room with an injury.
Riley said on Thursday Nebraska has been lucky not to have too many major injuries this season.
Seems like he might have jinxed his team.
- With Good Tommy comes Bad Tommy
Tommy Armstrong has been great cutting down on his interceptions this year.
But, for the second time this year, Armstrong threw an interception while Nebraska was in scoring range.
Armstrong threw a bad ball near Brandon Reilly, who was triple covered, right when Nebraska was driving to try and re-take the lead before halftime.
Armstrong finished well, leading Nebraska on two drives to score in the fourth quarter, but with every few good plays from Armstrong, there inevitably seems to be a few knuckle-head plays.
- Redzone turnovers are a huge issue
So Nebraska needed a big drive at the beginning of the second half, and when they needed it most, they again fumbled in the redone for the fifth time in five games.
Freshman Mikale Wilbon fumbled near the redzone, and Illinois extended their lead 16-10 with a field goal on the next possession.
Nebraska’s turnover problem isn’t dire, but where they turn the ball over that close to the goal line, that changes everything. They kill momentum and kill drives and keep lesser teams like Illinois hanging around.
That needs to be the No. 1 thing on Nebraska’s list to fix over this bye week.
- Nebraska can still close out ball games
At home, on the road, against Oregon or Illinois, Nebraska has been been able to show up when they need it most.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Newby ran in for a touchdown after Nebraska drove 75 yards in 18 plays. The drive was saved by a few Illini penalties and a risky fourth down run from Newby near the 10-yard line, which he got by about four centimeters.
The Blackshirts immediately forced a three-and-out, which has been the formula for dominated the fourth quarter.
Nebraska’s defense has consistently locked in when they need in the fourth quarter, which in a way, makes up for the lapses in the second quarter.
The big stops in the fourth quarter give the Husker offense time to drive, which is exactly what happened Saturday. The Huskers had most of the fourth quarter to put away the game.
Football is football and you really can’t assume anything.
Nebraska was a 20-point favorite and rolling. Illinois was 1-2 and falling.
On paper, this game shouldn’t have been close. It shouldn’t have even been kinda close.
But football is football. And right when you think Nebraska might finally be over the hump and start rolling through teams, a game like Saturday happens.
Where are Nebraska’s playmakers?
That’s what Nebraska is missing. That one players they can really rely on for big plays. Brandon Reilly has the potential to be that guy, and Westerkamp is at times but not always.
If Nebraska is going to run as much as they want to, they need more than six and seven yard runs. They need a back who can break off big runs, or change the game with a momentum swinging 30 yard burst.
Where are their big plays?
Nebraska’s season is going to be defined by turnovers. How well they take care of the ball, and how well the secondary plays taking the ball away.
Two turnovers in scoring distance are killers, and Nebraska is going to have to seriously figure how how to take care of the ball near the goal line.
What it means
Nebraska is still in the hunt.
It wasn’t pretty, but the win was a win. And Nebraska will now have a week to digest the first five games of the season, go through the issues of the Illinois game and take the second half of the season, where Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa await, with a real chance at making it to Indianapolis.