Tate: No real surprise here
LINCOLN, Neb. — If you aren’t attracted to Iowa, how about taking up residence a few miles west where it’s fiscally sound and shows less than 5 percent unemployment?
A weekend in the state capital offered the renowned Eagles on Friday night — I’d call “Hotel California” the greatest ever — followed by Saturday’s wind-blown but relaxed thumping of Illinois by your Big Red Machine.
With a thin, inexperienced defense, the Illini aren’t yet up to this level of challenge. They wanted to turn coach Bo Pelini into Nebraska’s version of Mack Brown but lacked the firepower.
Not with 90,458 loyalists whooping it up over the 330th consecutive sellout. Not with the Illini carrying the baggage of a 14-game (now 15) Big Ten losing streak. Not with that kind of disparity between Nebraska’s massive blockers and the UI’s overmatched defenders.
There’ll be no search for culprits in Saturday’s 39-19 result. Not here. No whining about a questionable first-quarter fumble by Donovonn Young, no doubting the strategy. On this chilly day, we witnessed a Clydesdale chasing Seabiscuit. Over before it started.
After watching speedback Ameer Abdullah dart around for 225 yards, one press box viewer opined that Nebraska’s weakest offensive lineman — is there a weak one? — is superior to the UI’s best defensive lineman. These Husker behemoths are knocking on the door of the Top 10 in ground yardage. And they’ve allowed just two sacks in five games, and none Saturday.
“At times (most times), they were too physical for us up front,” Illini coach Tim Beckman said. “They had four returning offensive linemen, and they’re very good.”
Reminded that Illinois will henceforth play Nebraska every year, Beckman said: “They are a measuring stick. We have to get bigger and stronger.”
Two stats — 7.4 yards per play and 521 in total offense — speak for themselves.
And Tim Banks, UI defensive coordinator, went beyond the defensive line, noting: “It was everybody. Whether it’s Pop Warner, college or pro, you have to stop the run. We didn’t do that.”
So it didn’t matter that four-year quarterback Taylor Martinez was withheld. In fact, nothing mattered. The Cornhuskers marched 57 and 69 yards on their first two possessions, barely drawing a deep breath. They could have drawn the plays out of a hat. It was 30-5 early in the third quarter, that safe margin produced with two reserve quarterbacks, three running backs and a bevy of unchallenged receivers.
Put simply, Nebraska’s football tradition, which propelled the Cornhuskers into Big Ten membership, is too far advanced for an Illini program forever struggling to regain its footing.
From a visitor’s perspective, it goes beyond football. Everything in the Omaha-Lincoln sector impresses as fresh and vibrant. The buildings, bridges and the attitudes around the state capital — where two-term limits discourage greedy politicians — indicate an upbeat culture that is neither rusting away like Detroit nor split like Illinois between Chicago and downstate factions.
There are fewer than 2 million residents in the state, and they’re all riding the same horse. Young Nebraskans live to compete for their state university.
Carryover value is critical, and the successes of the Devaney-Osborne years (1962-1997) propel them ever forward. When Frank Solich went 59-18, they fired him even as the 2003 team won 10 of 13. The demand and expectations are overwhelming.
Off on offense
All that being said, Pelini’s defense has distinct weaknesses ... shortcomings that Illinois might have taken better advantage of. Nathan Scheelhaase wasn’t particularly sharp (13 of 26 for 135 yards), and the receivers had difficulty freeing themselves.
Nevertheless, Bill Cubit’s unit matched Nebraska in first downs, 24-24, and carved out a respectable 372 yards despite (1) Young’s aforementioned fumble after a 17-yard jaunt early, (2) poor finishes on several promising drives and (3) a noticeable inability to handle Husker blitzes that contributed to 11 failures on 15 third-down plays.
“Sometimes they brought more than we could block,” senior tackle Corey Lewis said. “We have to identify and execute in those situations. Now that it’s on film, others will try to beat us up that way. We should have someone open when that happens.”
“It was rough going against the wind in the first quarter, and they had schemed some new stuff during their week off. They came after us hard, and we missed some protections. We have to get this fixed because it’ll be like this the rest of the season. We need guys to get open, and Nate has to be more accurate. It helps to get some big (TD) plays because, when you get deep, it gets really hard.”
Illinois will have two weeks to study those blitz moves, two weeks to find a missing go-to wideout (Ryan Lankford had no catches), two weeks to locate help for Josh Ferguson (196 yards rushing and receiving).
But, being realistic, there are too many holes defensively to think it can be fixed this season. This remains an overwhelming concern. There are no more SIUs and Miamis on the schedule.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.