LINCOLN, Neb. — The ragged lettering on Jonathan Brown’s orange Dri-FIT cutoff had the words “Rize Up.”
Standing amid a white background with the Big Ten logo plastered in multiple places, the Illinois linebacker knows the defense needs to rise up. In a significant way after Nebraska’s offense gashed Illinois for 521 yards.
“It’s minor things turning into big plays,” said Brown, whose game-high 13 tackles included four for loss. “That’s the good thing about it. It can be fixable.”
Stay tuned for the results on that. Limiting what teams do in their rushing attack is a point of emphasis for defensive coordinator Tim Banks.
“I think we were better tackling than we were in the Washington game, but obviously not good enough,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s Pop Warner, collegiate or pros. It starts with the run game. You’ve got to be able to stop the run and make teams one-dimensional. We weren’t able to do that.”
Banks said the 17-0 deficit early in the second quarter didn’t help.
“I didn’t think our kids gave up because obviously (Nebraska) scored some points quickly,” Banks said. “Nevertheless, when you dig yourself a hole against a good team, it makes it tough.”
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Nebraska had them on offense. Illinois, not so much.
The Illini came into Saturday with 22 passing plays of at least 20 yards. They only had two eclipse that mark against the Cornhuskers.
“I thought that was the biggest thing,” Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “They came after us, and we had a couple busted protections. It was rough sledding out there.”
Cubit was pleased with the running efforts of Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young, but the passing game left a bit to be desired. Nathan Scheelhaase completed 13 of 26 passes for a season-low 135 yards.
“Everybody’s got to improve,” Cubit said. “Nate’s got to throw the ball a little bit more accurate. The line’s got to hold up a little bit better. The backs have to protect a little bit more. The wideouts got to get open. I’ve got to do a better job. It’s everything.”
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The temperature at kickoff was 45 degrees with southwest winds at 26 mph. By far the windiest and coldest game of the season for Illinois. Tim Beckman said the wind was a factor.
“There’s no question about it,” the Illinois coach said, “but they had the wind, too. We’ve got to be able to not use that as an excuse.”
Illinois lost the coin toss, and Nebraska deferred to receive the ball at the start of the second half but opened the first quarter with the wind at its back.
If Illinois would have won the toss, Beckman said Illinois would have started the game with the wind at its back.
“We talked about doing the exact same thing,” Beckman said. “We definitely talked about it as a staff and as a team before we went out there.”
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Cubit has said in the past he wants to limit Ferguson’s touches. He might not anymore. Not after Ferguson had another stellar day out of the backfield. The Naperville native rushed for a career-high 114 yards on a career-high 19 carries and caught a team-best eight passes for 82 yards to lead Illinois.
“That’s what the game plan called for,” Ferguson said. “I’m grateful for the opportunities Coach Cubit gives me every game, but naturally, we want to fix what we did wrong and get better.”
Ferguson added a late touchdown on a 1-yard run with 57 seconds left to account for the final points in the 20-point setback. Even with the game well in hand by early in the third quarter, Ferguson said it was a different feeling on the sidelines compared with last year.
“Last year there was a sense of despair and no hope,” Ferguson said. “We’ve got a lot of confidence.”
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Young finished with 61 rushing yards on 15 carries and scored on a 1-yard touchdown run. His biggest run of the day resulted in 21 yards. But the end of that particular run, which came in the first quarter on Illinois’ second drive, isn’t one he’ll look back fondly on.
Young’s fumble came with Illinois trailing 7-0. Nebraska turned the miscue into a touchdown 10 plays later and led by at least 14 points the rest of the game.
“I saw a hole, got excited and got in the open field,” Young said. “I was going down, and the guy was just tugging at the ball as I was going down and got it out.”
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Scheelhaase left the game in the fourth quarter with a minor thigh bruise. Nothing too serious, the quarterback said.
“I’ve had a ton of them since I’ve been here,” he said, “so nothing new.”
Backup Reilly O’Toole finished the game and went 3 of 5 for 42 yards.
Illinois forced one turnover, a fourth-quarter fumble that Kenny Nelson recovered. Young’s fumble and a third-quarter interception by Scheelhaase kept Illinois from winning the turnover battle.
“The game of football is about controlling the football and taking care of the football,” Beckman said. “We’ve got to create more turnovers on defense, and we cannot turn the football over when you’re playing a team that had an opportunity to play in December last year.”
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No one could have blamed Scheelhaase if all he saw was red. It seemed like Nebraska sent its entire defense on a blitz when Illinois faced third-and-goal at its own 9 midway through the second quarter. The result? An 11-yard sack and no hopes of a possible game-changing touchdown. Taylor Zalewski converted a 38-yard field goal, but instead of a 17-7 deficit, Illinois trailed 17-3.
“It’s disappointing any time you get down there inside the red zone and have to settle for a field goal, especially in a position when you’re down and need to catch up,” Scheelhaase said. “It was something we were glad we put it through and got three out of the deal, but we want to get seven every time we’re down there.”
The blitzes were frequent from the Cornhuskers on Saturday. And Illinois did not fare well when Nebraska sent multiple defenders. Scheelhaase was sacked three times.
“We’ve got to do a better job out wide of getting open so the offensive line doesn’t have to protect too long,” Scheelhaase said. “They’re a heavy-pressure team, and with them just having a bye week, you know they’re going to try to get after you.”
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Illinois recorded its first safety in nearly three seasons Saturday. Mason Monheim made the initial stop on a run by Nebraska’s Imani Cross before Houston Bates finished off the play by tackling Cross in the end zone to cut Illinois’ deficit to 23-5 with 1:44 remaining in the second quarter.
It was the first safety for Illinois since Martez Wilson recovered a blocked punt in the end zone against Indiana on Oct. 23, 2010.
“We had a stunt on, and I was wrapped around the front side, and I saw them hand the ball off,” Bates said. “I saw Mason trailing him, and he got him tangled up. I knew he was in the end zone trying to get across the goal line, and I made sure he didn’t do that.”
Illinois didn’t record any sacks against Nebraska’s offensive line. Bates said it was the best unit Illinois has seen all season.
“We’ve got to win up front,” Bates said. “We’ve got to establish a new line of scrimmage, and if we don’t do that, they’re going to run on us all day. They’re big and strong and fast, just like every other Big Ten offensive line. Not seeing that the first four games I don’t think prepared us for what they brought to the table. We just need to respond and do better.”
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Beckman didn’t single out any wide receivers. But the group only had four receptions — all by Martize Barr. Ryan Lankford, who entered Saturday as Illinois’ leader in receiving yards among the receivers, did not catch a pass for the first time this season and first time since Illinois lost 28-17 at home to Wisconsin on Nov. 19, 2011. Steve Hull didn’t catch a pass, either. Neither did Miles Osei or Spencer Harris.
“We’ve got to continue to work on getting ourselves open downfield,” Beckman said, “and giving Nathan enough time to be able to throw the ball downfield.”
Route running from the wide receivers has caused some concern from Cubit since practices started in August. Cubit knows defenses will provide stern tests for his offense from here on out.
“It’s going to be like this for the rest of the year,” he said. “That’s just the way it is. We don’t have any recourse. We’ve got to go out there and go get it done.”
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Penalties didn’t hurt Illinois offensively. No false starts or delay of games created by the crowd noise.
“I thought we did well,” Scheelhaase said. “I don’t think we had any cadence issues. That was a great job of seeing our guys step up to the challenge there. The biggest thing is you’re going to feel the adversity. When they make plays and do well, you’re definitely going to feel that. That wasn’t a factor at all.”