LINCOLN — If Nebraska's defense rebuilds its season from September rubble, the cleanup perhaps started Saturday in a sideline huddle where, once again, the unit teetered on heading haywire.
Embattled defensive coordinator John Papuchis watched his players during a timeout early in NU's 39-19 win over Illinois on Saturday. The Illini were busting off chunks of yards, so Papuchis gauged the Huskers' mood. After a bye week and long hours of repair on a young bunch, he didn't see fear.
He saw some fight.
“A lot more conviction in terms of their resolve and toughness,” Papuchis said. “We had a couple timeouts in the red zone, and the talk in the huddle was real positive. That was a definite improvement in what we've seen.”
Bend, bend Blackshirts.
Pitted against an Illinois offense with a bathtub of schemes, Nebraska's defense — at least for a week — shook the meltdown mindset that had plagued it for the opening month of the season. Illinois' offense reached midfield six times in the first three quarters and scored just 10 points, and NU offset that by forcing two turnovers that led to 14 Husker points.
Throw in an offense that gained 521 yards and made enough highlight plays to offset stumbling miscues, and Nebraska (4-1 overall) opened Big Ten play with a coast of a win, while Illinois (3-2) will watch its league losing streak surpass two years.
More to the pleasing point for coach Bo Pelini: NU held Illinois to 372 yards — 106 below its season average — and three touchdowns under its season scoring average. And on the few occasions when Illinois had a chance to make Nebraska sweat, the Huskers forced punts.
“They stood up,” Pelini said.
He pointed to a series late in the first half, when Nebraska had given up a safety on an Imani Cross sweep inside NU's own 5-yard line that offensive coordinator Tim Beck called “stupidity on my part.” The mistake had cut the Huskers' lead to 23-5, and despite being dominated for a half, the Illini had a chance to do what UCLA had done three weeks before — cut an 18-point pad to something manageable by halftime.
“We wanted to make sure they didn't go into half with that momentum,” said redshirt freshman linebacker Michael Rose, who led all Huskers with 11 tackles. “We saw how that worked out for us against UCLA.”
Illinois gained 3 yards in three plays and punted.
“That could have been a turning point in the game,” Pelini said.
On NU's opening second-half drive, Ameer Abdullah — who ran for a career-high 225 yards — tore and wove through the Illini for a 43-yard touchdown. That would have been the game's standout play if Kenny Bell's one-handed, 37-yard touchdown grab hadn't later surpassed it.
Those moments — plus an offensive line performance that many coaches and players praised — helped buoy redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong through his second career start. In a 26-mph wind so swirling that one referee trapped his flag between his feet so it wouldn't blow away, Armstrong had to throw only 13 passes. He completed eight for 135 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for just 18 yards.
Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had no such luxury. He spent much of the day throwing low or high of well-covered targets or trying to face NU's well-timed blitzes, one of which forced a tipped ball that was intercepted by end Jason Ankrah.
Scheelhaase said the wind made passing “more difficult.” Illini offensive coordinator Bill Cubit tried to protect Scheelhaase with a dizzying number of sets and play speeds, and at times it worked, as the Illini ran for 195 yards on 48 carries. Illinois ran its base personnel — a running back and two tight ends — out of open sets. It ran a play with nine blockers and two more out of the “Emory Henry” formation that utilizes only three traditional offensive linemen while deploying tackles near the sideline.
“You know they have some kind of goofy thing every week,” Papuchis said with a bit of admiration.
“It was crazy, all those tight ends and extra running backs, tackles over,” defensive end Avery Moss said. “But we got to it.”
Papuchis agreed. Chemistry and confidence, which had been such a struggle through the first month of games, improved despite an infusion of new players in key roles — Michael Rose, linebacker Jared Afalava, safety LeRoy Alexander and cornerback Jonathan Rose.
“Today's communication was on point,” Alexander said. “We were just able to have fun.”
The fourth quarter appeared a little less fun. Aided in a bad way by the wind, Armstrong overthrew a wide-open Trey Foster in the end zone on a fourth-down play. Cross lost a fumble inside the Illinois 20. NU's defense — trying to play more youngsters near the end — was flagged three times for 12 men on the field. Pelini said the referees “didn't officiate that right there on the last drive” as Nebraska gave up a touchdown.
But the Huskers — though certain there's improvement to be made even if the next two opponents, Purdue and Minnesota, may not test them much — seemed satisfied with at least the effort for one Saturday. Coaches and players talked about a return of intensity and focus and a performance that didn't fall off the wagon in the second half.
“The way we came out, it kind of had the feel of the UCLA game,” Michael Rose said. “We came out with a lot of energy, really excited. The main thing I kept saying: 'Don't make this a one-half thing, a one-quarter thing. Let's make sure this is a full-game type of deal.' And that's the way we played. Everyone was real in tune. We just made plays.”
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• Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Illinois game:
• Video: NU's Ameer Abdullah after the Illinois game:
• Video: NU's Tommy Armstrong after the Illinois game:
• Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon: