FINAL: Nebraska 39, Illinois 19
LINCOLN, Neb. — Illinois' first visit to Nebraska in nearly three decades didn't go so well.
The Cornhuskers scored early and often in dismantling the Illini 39-19 on Saturday at a chilly, sold-out Memorial Stadium.
It was the UI's 15th consecutive Big Ten loss.
The good news? Illinois has another week off — its second of the young season — before another Big Ten beast dressed in red (Wisconsin) visits.
Ameer Abdullah ran for a career-high 225 yards and two touchdowns and Nebraska's maligned defense was much improved in a 39-19 victory over Illinois on Saturday.
Tommy Armstrong, starting his second straight game in place of injured quarterback Taylor Martinez, led the Cornhuskers (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) to touchdowns on his first three series and was solid throughout.
Just as big as Armstrong's performance was that of Nebraska's defense, which had been one of the nation's worst through four games.
Illinois (3-2, 0-1), which came in averaging 40 points a game, didn't score its first touchdown until the middle of the third quarter. Twice when the Illini looked as if they would make a game of it, the Huskers made big stops.
Nebraska scored two of its flashiest touchdowns of the season in the third quarter. Abdullah popped a 43-yard run that had the Memorial Stadium crowd roaring after he broke two tackles on the perimeter and turned upfield. Kenny Bell later made a leaping one-handed grab over the middle and ran the last 15 yards to finish a 37-yard TD that made it 36-12.
The Illini, which have had their own problems on defense, couldn't corral Abdullah. The junior carried 20 times and had the most yards by a Nebraska player since Roy Helu Jr. had a school-record 307 against Missouri in 2010.
Josh Ferguson led the Illini with 114 yards on 19 carries and another 82 yards on eight catches. He scored on a 1-yard run with under a minute to play. Nathan Scheelhaase was 13 of 26 for 135 yards.
Abdullah's first three carries netted 43 yards, and he ran in from the 2 for Nebraska's first touchdown. It was 14-0 after Armstrong passed 4 yards to Quincy Enunwa for the first of his two touchdown passes.
Ron Kellogg III took over for the next series, which ended with Pat Smith's 27-yard field goal. Armstrong then came back to direct a 71-yard scoring drive that put the Huskers up 23-3.
Armstrong was 8 of 13 for 135 yards and Kellogg 3 of 6 for 51 yards.
Nebraska tweaked its defense during its bye week and came out with new starters in lineman Aaron Curry and linebackers Michael Rose and Jared Afalava. The Huskers allowed 372 yards, 92 under its 107th-ranked season average of 464.
Illinois' first series was a three-and-out, and its second ended when Ciante Evans stripped the ball from Donovonn Young.
The Illini turned the ball over on downs when Stanley Jean-Baptiste laid a big hit on Steve Hull, popping the ball out of his hands on fourth down. Later, the Illini had to settle for a field goal after a blitzing Evans sacked Scheelhaase after they had driven to the Nebraska 6.
Maybe the biggest stop came after Illinois tied up Imani Cross in the end zone for a safety and took possession at its 47 following the free kick. The Illini could have made it a two-possession game, but a three-and-out left it 23-5 at half.
Scheelhaase and Aaron Bailey combined to lead a 14-play, 75-yard drive in the third quarter that pulled the Illini to 30-12.
But the Illini couldn't get any closer. They turned the ball over on their next possession when Evans hit Scheelhaase as he was about to pass, causing the ball to flutter and land in the hands of defensive lineman Jason Ankrah.
End of third quarter: Nebraska 36, Illinois 12
Third quarter impressions: Kenny Bell might make the SportsCenter Top 10. The wide receiver made an incredible one-handed catch that he turned into a 37-yard touchdown catch, outrunning the Illinois defense around the 15-yard line. Nebraska has playmakers on offense, that's for sure. Illinois does, too, but none have seemed to show up in Lincoln.
Third quarter hero: Ameer Abdullah. The I-back for the Cornhuskers ran wherever he liked to on Nebraska's third drive, finishing it off with a 43-yard touchdown run where he eluded at least three Illinois defenders. His touchdown set the tone for what would transpire in the second.
Third quarter goat: Nathan Scheelhaase. The Illinois quarterback can't have throws like he did on the interception by Jason Ankrah. And Nebraska made Illinois pay with a quick touchdown a few players after the turnover.
Nebraska 30, Illinois 12. 5:54 left in third quarter
Illinois took a lot of time off the clock. Seven minutes and four seconds, to be exact. But capitalized with a 1-yard touchdown run by Donovonn Young.
Nathan Scheelhaase made a couple nice completions on the drive.
Illinois is still a ways away from making a comeback, but at least it was able to get its first touchdown of the game. Now, if they could just tackle somebody.
Nebraska 30, Illinois 5, 12:58 left in third quarter.
Ameer Abdullah ran roughshod on Illinois at the start of the drive. The Nebraska I-back capped off a quick scoring drive with a 43-yard touchdown run, with Mason Monheim diving and missing a tackle.
Abdullah has 13 carries for 141 yards today and two touchdowns. He could double those numbers, but he probably won't play much longer in the second half.
A late hit penalty by Earnest Thomas on Abdullah epitomizes the frustration the Illinois defense is likely experiencing right now.
Halftime: Nebraska 23, Illinois 5
Illinois wasted an opportunity to add a touchdown. Miles Osei had a nice kickoff return, but Illinois' offense couldn't get it going. Again.
Nathan Scheelhaase has looked tentative at times. The aggressive play-calling from Bill Cubit hasn't developed in the first 30 minutes either.
Second quarter impressions: Barring a miracle, Illinois will head into its bye week on a 15-game Big Ten losing streak. The offense. The defense. Nothing is really working so far for Illinois.
Second quarter hero: Mason Monheim. A bit of a stretch here after the offense failed to score a touchdown. So the defense helped out. Monheim made the initial stop before Houston Bates cleaned up the tackle on Imani Cross, which resulted in two points for Illinois.
Second quarter goat: Cross looked unstoppable on his 2-yard touchdown run. And then downright dumb running backwards near the goal line, which resulted in a safety for Illinois.
Nebraska 23, Illinois 5. 1:44 left in second quarter
Take points however you can get them. Houston Bates tackled Imani Cross in the end zone for a safety, the first one of the year for Illinois. A solid punt by Justin DuVernois put Nebraska in bad field position.
Now Illinois gets the ball back and a chance to add a much-needed touchdown.
Nebraska 23, Illinois 3. 4:18 left in second quarter
Nebraska effectively moved the ball at will, much like it has done this entire game so far, before Imani Cross essentially walked into the end zone for a 2-yard score.
It seems every time I look up, there's another Nebraska wide receiver wide open. Or a running back having ample room to run.
Illinois needs to score a touchdown on its next drive. Especially since Nebraska will get the ball to start the second half.
Missed tackles are still plaguing Illinois. Taylor Barton failed to wrap up on a short pass and a first down ensued. The defensive issues are glaring right now for Illinois.
Nebraska 17, Illinois 3. 7:50 left in second quarter
Illinois had a prime opportunity to get its first touchdown. But it stalled within Nebraska's 10-yard line. The Cornhuskers blitzed seemingly the entire state on third-and-goal, and Nathan Scheelhaase was sacked for an 11-yard loss. A 38-yard field goal by Taylor Zalewski gives Illinois its first points in Nebraska since 1985.
Scheelhaase kept the drive alive with a 17-yard gain off a quarterback scramble, then Martize Barr had a nice gain off a bubble-screen like play. Illinois hurried up its pace of play midway through the drive, which seemed to catch Nebraska off guard.
A holding penalty by T.J. Neal on the kickoff gave Illinois less than ideal field position at its own 8-yard line on its first drive of the second quarter.
Ferguson quickly erased that with two solid plays, displaying his moves and athleticism. Good downfield blocking by Spencer Harris played a role in Ferguson's 23-yard run.
Ferguson is on track for a superb year. Makes one wonder what his career numbers would look like if he had stayed healthy his first two seasons.
Nebraska 17, Illinois 0, 13:04 left in second quarter
Well, Illinois didn't give up a touchdown on that drive. That's a positive. A 27-yard field goal by Pat Smith puts the Cornhuskers up comfortably early in the second quarter.
Illinois' defense is again showing its flaws. One media member behind me said, 'Illinois' defensive backs just look confused.'
That, in a nutshell, is what has stood out about this game so far. Nebraska marched down the field on that drive, and only didn't score a touchdown after a missed throw by Ron Kellogg III. Kellog, by the way, started the season as Nebraska's third-string quarterback, and the running back on that drive that Nebraska used, Terrell Newby, is listed third on the depth chart, too. Yikes.
End of first quarter: Nebraska 14, Illinois 0
Bill Cubit wants to limit Josh Ferguson's workload. He might not today, though, not with how he produced on that drive, both with his running ability and pass-catching skills. But Illinois is still scoreless after the drive stalled within Nebraska's 30-yard line. I'd expect Illinois to go for a few more deep passes next quarter with the wind at its back.
No way Illinois would attempt a 45-yard field goal into the wind, especially with the inconsistency Taylor Zalewski has shown this year. Kickers were having a hard time making a 35-yard field goal going into the wind in pregame warmups.
Even with the wind, this game could still turn into a shootout. That's because both defenses are far from great. Right now, it seems like they'd have a hard time stopping a high school team.
First quarter impressions: Illinois' defense has a long way to go. A long way. The offense has looked OK in two of its three drives, but Nathan Scheelhaase didn't have enough time to make plays.
First-quarter star: The wind. Nebraska had it at its back in the first 15 minutes and showed an effective balanced offense. Illinois has Josh Ferguson, and that's about it right now.
First-quarter goat: Donovonn Young. The running back wants to produce more and have a significant part in the game. Fumble like he did, though, on Illinois' second drive, and he won't.
Nebraska 14, Illinois 0. 5:53 left in first quarter
Could be a long day for Illinois. Quincy Enunwa caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from Tommy Armstrong and was wide open near the front of the end zone. The Illinois defense is getting exposed early.
Nebraska nearly had a big turnover when Imani Cross flat-out dropped the handoff he received from Tommy Armstrong, but he recovered.
Armstrong has a good upside, but is off on a few throws where his receivers are open.
Huge turnover with Donovonn Young fumbling. Illinois had its second drive going, all through runs, but Young's 17-yard gain that put Illinois around Nebraska's 31-yard line will be remembered more for his fumble. Looked like he might have been down, but officials kept the ruling on the field.
Illinois came out on its second drive with four straight runs. Might be the way to go against a Nebraska defensive line that isn't very stout. Bill Cubit has stated all along that he will take what the defense gives him. It helps, though, when the offense doesn't give the ball back to Nebraska.
Nebraska's first two kickoffs have sailed deep into the end zone. Whoever kicks into the north end zone will likely do that all game long.
Nebraska 7, Illinois 0, 11:06 left in first quarter
Ameer Abdullah will cause problems for Illinois all day. He did on Nebraska's first drive, and capped it off with a 2-yard touchdown run. Essentially ran over Austin Teitsma to get in the end zone, too.
Poor tackling by the Illinois defense did not help matters. Looks like the third quarter of the Washington game right now.
Bad first offensive series for Illinois. Scheelhaase did not get out in the open on first run of the game, and secondary did a good job of bottling up any receivers on the next play.
LIVE STATS HERE
Illinois will receive the ball first and go into the north end zone. Into the wind essentially. Nebraska won the toss, but deferred to the second half.
At the top of this page are links to the live stats throughout the game. Handy tool, in case you want to follow along.
There's a lot of red here. A lot. Hard to see much orange, but every now and then one seems to stand out in the crowd.
Nathan Scheelhaase is prepared for the cold. The Illinois quarterback is wearing long sleeves under his jersey. Other Illinois plays who will sport similar looks include Ryan Lankford, Taylor Zalewski, Zach Hirth, Tim Russell and a few others. The majority of Illinois players are going with no extra layer of warmth. Read into that what you want to.
As of 10:40 a.m., Memorial Stadium was starting to fill up. The addition of 6,000 seats in the east stands are pretty high. As Loren Tate pointed out, those seats are higher than the press box. More keen observations from Tate throughout the day. Those sitting at the very top not only have a birds-eye view of what's taking place on the field, but can see most of downtown Lincoln as well. And, like the wry humor Bob Asmussen has, he stated this week that Nebraska's goal is to likely expand Memorial Stadium so every person in the state could have a seat for the game. (Nebraska's population is 1.8 million for those who were curious)
Nebraska starters introduce themselves on the Jumbotron much like NFL players do on Sunday night broadcasts. They give out their hometown and their major. Didn't one one utter Ball So Hard, like Terrell Suggs of the Ravens has done in the past.
The Nebraska band took the field around 10:40 a.m. They were out here bright and early (actually before the sun rose) going through their routine inside Memorial Stadium.
30 minutes until kickoff
The topic could become mute in about four hours.
Until the 14-game Big Ten losing streak ends, however, Illinois will hear about it on a weekly basis during league play.
Click here to see what Illinois players and Tim Beckman had to say about the skid this week.
Aside from the wind, one other item to keep an eye on is the Illinois pass rush. It has struggled mightily, mainly on getting pressure on the quarterback. Only Tim Kynard has one sack among the linemen, with LEO Houston Bates registering half a sack. The other 2.5 sacks Illinois has accumulated this year have come from Jonathan Brown and Mason Monheim. And Illinois is going against the best offensive line in the country. Nebraska's big boys have only allowed two sacks. All season.
Beckman probably had one eye on his iPhone last night from the team hotel. His son, Alex, is the starting quarterback at Urbana, and he had a solid game last night for the Tigers, even though Urbana lost 41-34 to Normal West. Here is a quick recap from that game.
Ryan Lankford was working out with the punters a bit shortly after 10 a.m. Not quite a true rugby style punt like he used two years ago, but don't be shocked if the Illinois wideout uses his kicking feet today. Illinois worked him in with the punters earlier this week at practice, too.
Nebraska has a nice way to honor some of its former greats here inside Memorial Stadium. At the top of the north end zone, it has numbers of some of its legendary players like Johnny Rodgers (No. 20), Mike Rozier (No. 30), Eric Crouch (No. 7) and Tommie Frazier (No. 15), among others. All told, I count 17 former Nebraska players that are recognized.
Not too many media covering Illinois have made the trip, but a few are up here in the press box. Now it's time for the best part of the in-game report. Predictions.
I went with Nebraska 48, Illinois 34 earlier in the week. Sticking to that score in the faint hope both offenses can overcome that weather. Either way, I think the Cornhuskers leave with the win today.
Chris Hine, Chicago Tribune: Nebraska 45, Illinois 38
Steve Greenberg, Chicago Sun-Times: Nebraska 37, Illinois 30
Fletcher Page, Scout.com: Nebraska 41, Illinois 31
Taylor Rooks, Scout.com: Nebraska 35, Illinois 14
And Loren Tate predicts a football game will take place today. Back at kickoff.
60 minutes until kickoff
Pinnacle Bank Arena is near Memorial Stadium. And the new home for the Nebraska basketball team is an impressive facility. Seemed to awake Loren Tate from his slumber this morning as we made the drive in (before the sun was even up in Lincoln). He snapped his head up, turned to the right and went, 'Wow!'
The sight of a traffic jam in Lincoln on a Friday evening wasn't something I expected when I drove in yesterday to talk to Tim Beckman. But that's what greeted me. Of course, it would have helped if I had checked out the fact that The Eagles played last night at Pinnacle Arena. It took me about a half-hour to drive 1 mile. Felt more like Chicago than I ever anticipated coming out here.
The wind could be a major factor in today's game. It continues to blow at a rapid rate, which could make for some interesting punts and kicks. All the more important to have a solid running game, which Illinois has displayed in two of its wins this year (Cincinnati and Miami). Against a suspect Nebraska defense, Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young might be able to show some productivity again. Ferguson is leading the nation in receiving yards by a running back, so expect some screens from Illinois in an attempt to get the ball in his hands early.
The kicking game will be affected by the wind today. Watching the Nebraska and Illinois kickers warm up kicking into the wind, it's clear any field goal attempt past 30 yards going into the wind will be an adventure. When the Illinois long snappers are putting the ball on the field right now, the wind is just blowing it a few feet to their right.
Illinois will go with white jersey tops, white pants and orange helmets. The specialists debuted those looks (first-time ever in program history since the helmets are new this year) at about 9:50 a.m. when they came out for warmups. Nebraska will go with its traditional look of white pants, red jersey tops and white helmets.
All bleacher seats here in Lincoln, with the exception of some red chairback seats that are scattered in the upper decks on both sides of the stadium. The stadium was expanded this offseason to accommodate more than 90,000 guests. The top four crowds in program history have come this year, and we might see the biggest one today.
90 minutes until kickoff
Don't know how much Evan Wilson saw of the Braves-Dodgers game last night, but the Georgia native had to like the fact Atlanta tied the NLDS at one game apiece. Find out more on what Wilson had to say regarding his Braves, his Falcons and much more by clicking here.
Loren Tate wasn't too happy with how the Cardinals played yesterday. And the fact that Chicago Midway airport didn't have any TVs tuned into the game while we waited for our flight to Omaha. More TateTales throughout the live report.
The first sight of Nebraska students entering Memorial Stadium happened about an hour ago. They'll be located near the Nebraska bench, stretching from near the 20-yard line to the end zone it looks like.
Illinois' bench will be the one that's closest to the press box. If that helps your viewing pleasure at all.
The first Illinois specialists walked onto the field around 9:20 a.m. We'll see if punter Justin DuVernois will be used today after he did not attempt a punt in last Saturday's 50-14 win against Miami (Ohio). I think Tim Beckman will be OK if he doesn't have to again. Illinois has its cheerleaders here as well, and they're out getting the flags ready. I don't envy their job in carrying those today, especially with a crisp wind.
Tom Hart and John Congemi will handle the call of today's game on ESPNU, the first Illinois has appeared on that network this year. So far, the tally of TV stations to show Illinois games this year is BTN (three games), ESPN2 (Cincinnati game) and now ESPNU. Congemi is a former Pittsburgh quarterback who succeeded Dan Marino as the Panthers' signal-caller in the 1980s. He lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., helping with Miami Dolphins coverage as well as his staple of college football announcing duties.
The absence of Taylor Martinez altered the four keys to today's game I wrote before Bo Pelini announced Thursday evening that Martinez would sit because of his turf toe injury. Find out what the full slate is right here.
They have pictures of all sorts of former Nebraska greats here in the press box, from Johnny Rodgers to Tommie Frazier to Eric Crouch. Driving into Lincoln last night amid heavy traffic (more on that later), there's a gas station right off the main drag. In the space where it can list announcements, it listed the game score prediction instead. The station had Nebraska winning 40-24.
Even with Martinez out, how well Tommy Armstrong Jr. plays in his place is one aspect to keep an eye on. Click here for other impact players on both Illinois and Nebraska for today's game.
Be back in a half hour.
Two hours until kickoff
Good morning college football fans.
Matt Daniels here with you throughout the day, starting now well before kickoff and up through the fourth quarter.
Illinois will run its first play in Lincoln, Neb., for the first time in 28 years in roughly two hours or so.
It's a cool morning in Lincoln, so don't be surprised if you're watching on ESPNU and see fans bundled up in coats and stocking hats. The winds are whipping at a pretty brisk pace, too, so we'll see if the shootout many predicted (myself included) takes place.
Click here for a look at the predictions from our panel of experts. Bob Asmussen will look for another 10-0 week. Definitely didn't see that coming last week (I don't think Bob did either), and Asmussen, a Nebraska native, likes Illinois in today's game.
Illinois arrived in Lincoln a little after 5:30 p.m. on Friday, and took three buses to Memorial Stadium for a brief walkthrough. The purpose of that visit was just for the players to take in the setting, with Illinois coach Tim Beckman saying earlier this week he'd understand if the players' smart phones were out in full force taking pictures.
It is a pretty massive stadium here in Lincoln right off Interstate 80, and close to downtown Lincoln. Click here for some notes from Friday's walkthrough and what Beckman thinks it will be without Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez playing.
This is a big stadium. That's a statement you might hear repeatedly from me today. There's a larger banner in the second deck opposite the press box pointing out the sellout streak Nebraska has had. It's at 330 and counting. To find out more about Nebraska from our resident expert, click here for must-read info from Asmussen.
And Bob is spot on about Misty's Steakhouse. Had a chance to go there last night in downtown Lincoln after Illinois' walkthrough, and oh my. It's a tad pricey, but worth every penny. Exceptional steak. I had a 10-ounce sirloin, and I don't think I need to eat again this weekend.
Be back in another half hour.