LINCOLN, Neb. — A chance at national prominence greeted Illinois on Saturday.
Beat Nebraska and most people are convinced the turnaround under Tim Beckman is on an upward swing.
Lose and the bandwagon still has plenty of room.
The latter scenario unfolded after Nebraska handled Illinois 39-19 in front of 90,458 fans at Memorial Stadium.
Saturday’s outcome revealed a few glaring and troublesome points.
— Illinois isn’t ready to leave a rabid atmosphere with a road win.
— Beckman’s team isn’t ready to stop the pass.
— Or the run. Again.
— Nathan Scheelhaase looked ordinary.
— And all the increased confidence Illinois might have felt heading into its trip to Lincoln took a hit.
Illinois flew back to Champaign on Saturday evening with questions to answer. About its defense. And its missed tackles.
About its offense. Which on Saturday resembled the one Illinois had last year more than the one offensive coordinator Bill Cubit rode the first month of the season to record-setting levels.
“We’re going to evaluate it, we’ll look at it and we’ll make our decisions from there on how we can utilize our defense better and our offense better,” Beckman said. “We didn’t score enough points (Saturday), by any means.”
The Big Ten losing streak is still intact for Illinois. And will stay at 15 games for the next two weeks before the Illini host Wisconsin. A primetime game awaits Illinois when it plays again at home. Even if Illinois looked far from the Big Ten elite on Saturday.
“We’ve all got to pick our heads up and look for the things we need to improve on,” Scheelhaase said. “It’s a long season, and having two weeks before this next game will really get us prepared for it.”
Illinois never led against the Cornhuskers. Never seemed to establish any sort of offensive rhythm. Never stifled Nebraska’s balanced offense, which didn’t miss a beat with Taylor Martinez out. The combination of Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III at quarterback made mincemeat of the Illinois defense. On numerous drives. Ameer Abdullah looked like the second coming of Ahman Green, rushing for a career-high 225 yards on only 20 carries and two touchdowns.
“We got pushed around a little bit,” linebacker Jonathan Brown said. “They were big up front. It’s not like they just came out and completely just blew us off the ball, but there were definitely some missed opportunities out there.”
Josh Ferguson delivered plays for Illinois (196 yards of total offense). Brown had another double-digit tackling effort with 13 stops. Those were about the only bright moments on a cold day in Nebraska that left Illinois with no warm, fuzzy feelings afterward.
The offensive shootout many anticipated never materialized. Whereas Nebraska could seemingly do little wrong on offense, all sorts of problems confounded Illinois when Scheelhaase & Co. had the ball.
A hoarse Beckman said after Saturday’s game that it doesn’t matter to him that a second bye week in a three-week span is now upon Illinois. The Illini responded after their last bye week with a shellacking of Miami (Ohio). Wisconsin, however, is no Miami (Ohio). A win against Nebraska would have likely resulted in a sellout crowd against the Badgers. Saturday’s result most likely didn’t help ticket sales or allow anyone to get a real firm grasp on what could transpire the rest of the season.
“We know what we’ve got here as a group,” right tackle Corey Lewis said. “The better we play, fans will stay on the bandwagon, but that’s not really our concern. Everybody has their own opinion. If we’re thinking about fans jumping on and off the bandwagon, then we’ve got a lot bigger problems.”
A whole lot didn’t happen for Illinois. Like completing deep passes. Hanging onto the ball. Making tackles. Silencing Nebraska’s partisan home crowd. The frustrating afternoon in Nebraska does not bode well for how Illinois might fare during the rest of the Big Ten. A Nebraska defense that came in giving up more yards than Illinois would have made alums like Trev Alberts, Grant Wistrom and Ndamukong Suh proud.
What it means
Welcome to the Big Ten. Nebraska effectively handled Illinois in nearly every way possible en route to an easy win. The good vibes Tim Beckman built up the first month of the season might start to dwindle if Illinois can’t fare better the rest of the Big Ten season. A Leaders Division win is a rare occasion for Illinois. Not many people thought Illinois could come into Lincoln and pull off a surprise, but based on the first month of the season, not many people thought a blowout loss would ensue, either.
Vast improvement. Mainly on defense. But the offense needs some shoring up after its struggles, too. Nathan Scheelhaase did not look like the Big Ten’s best passer, which he was coming into Saturday. Illinois heads into its second — and final — bye week of the season off a loss. The first game after the Illini’s 10-point loss to Washington ended with a 50-14 win against Miami (Ohio). Needless to say, no one will expect Illinois to beat Wisconsin by 36 points on Oct. 19. Illinois showed some competitive fire coming back in the game against Washington and keeping it close well into the fourth quarter. By the time the fourth quarter arrived, many Nebraska fans were hitting the exits in order to beat traffic.
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
Tommy Armstrong Jr., Nebraska
Kenny Bell, Nebraska