Lincoln, NE (SportsNetwork.com) – Big Ten Conference action gets underway for
a pair of teams on Saturday night, as the surprising Illinois Fighting Illini
hit the road to challenge the 21st-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Illinois, which won a total of four games all of last season, is on the verge
of matching that win total as the team has logged a 3-1 mark by beating
Youngstown State (28-17), Western Kentucky (42-34) and Texas State (42-35),
sandwiched around a loss at Washington (44-19). Despite their early success,
Tim Beckman’s squad will have its hands full with the majority of its
conference foes so improving much beyond last year’s four wins won’t be easy.
Nebraska won all four of its non-conference bouts, three of which came by
double digits. First, it was a 55-7 rout of Florida Atlantic, followed by a
closer-than-expected 31-24 triumph over FCS foe McNeese State. The Cornhuskers
bounced back in a big way as they blew away Fresno State on the road, 55-19,
before pounding out a 41-31 win over visiting Miami-Florida last weekend.
Following this clash, coach Bo Pelini’s club will play two straight on the
road, the first being next week at No. 9 Michigan State.
Nebraska owns an 8-2-1 lead in the all-time series with Illinois, which
includes a 39-19 victory at home last season. The Huskers are 6-1 versus the
Illini in Lincoln over the years.
Josh Ferguson ran for a career-high 190 yards and accounted for a pair of
touchdowns in helping Illinois battle from behind to take down visiting Texas
State last Saturday. It was the third time in as many victories that the
Illini had to overcome a second-half deficit.
In addition to Ferguson’s performance, quarterback Wes Lunt went 25-of-39 for
266 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception, hitting Mike Dudek seven
times for 90 yards and a score.
Defensively, Illinois surrendered 475 total yards to Texas State, 336 of which
came through the air. The Illini did manage to come up with four sacks, while
allowing the Bobcats to convert only 4-of-14 third-down chances, and they got
in on the scoring as well when V’Angelo Bentley returned an interception 45
yards for a TD with less than three minutes remaining in regulation. Taylor
Barton was all over the field for UI, logging 14 tackles, while Dawuane Smoot
had a pair of sacks.
For the season, Illinois is scoring 32.8 ppg, but allowing 32.5 ppg. The
Illini are being outgained on the ground (108.2 ypg to 172.5 ypg), but they
are passing for 321.5 ypg while permitting 257.2 ypg. Tightening up on defense
in the first half of games will be paramount to making this a highly
successful season, as they’ve surrendered a total of 82 points in the opening
two quarters, while scoring just 46.
Lunt has hit the mark on 65.8 percent of his throws for 1,237 yards, 11 TDs
and only three INTs this season. Dudek paces the club with 19 grabs for 249
yards and three scores, while Ferguson has 316 yards and three TDs on 50
carries (6.3 ypc).
Barton is averaging better than 10 tackles per outing, and five guys in all
have at least 20 stops on the season. As a team, Illinois has logged 10 sacks,
but come up with only five takeaways.
While it hasn’t been easy, Beckman is happy his team has a winning record
heading into conference play.
“Any time we take a look at this record at the end of the year, there are
three ‘Ws’ in the book. I am getting a lot of grey hair with some of these
game but it is a ‘W’. You’ve got to cherish these opportunities; you’ve got to
be excited about winning football games and don’t be shocked when you fight
for four quarters and end up winning.”
Nebraska used a punishing ground attack to topple visiting Miami last week, as
Ameer Abdullah ran for 229 yards and two touchdowns. Adding another score on a
short pass play in the second quarter, Abdullah wound up with a career-high
313 all-purpose yards in helping the Huskers to 456 yards of total offense.
Tommy Armstrong, Jr. completed only nine passes, tallying 113 yards with a
pair of TDs and one INT. He did add 96 yards on 13 totes to complement the
effort of Abdullah. Kenny Bell finished with four grabs for 70 yards and a
From a defensive standpoint, the Cornhuskers were on their game with regard to
stopping the run, as the Hurricanes tallied just 76 yards on 23 attempts. The
visitors did however, generate 359 yards via the pass, scoring three TDs along
the way. Fortunately, Nebraska came up with three turnovers and a pair of
sacks (both by Randy Gregory), and also got into the scoring column when Josh
Mitchell returned a fumble 57 yards for a TD near the end of the third
quarter. David Santos was credited with a game-high 10 tackles, and he also
had one of the team’s two interceptions.
Pelini had high praise for his team, in particular Abdullah and the offense,
following the Miami game.
“It was a good team win. Overall, it was a heckuva an effort. I tell you, I’ve
been around a lot of football. And (Ameer Abdullah) No. 8 showed just how
special he is tonight. He ran like a man possessed. I think the offensive line
stepped up. The receivers stepped up. But I think our running game is what won
this football game for us. That’s what Nebraska football is all about.”
For the season, Nebraska is scoring more than twice as many points as the
opposition (45.5 to 20.2 ppg), and the offense is generating 559.8 ypg
compared to only 329.8 ypg for the enemy. The Huskers run for 329 ypg, ranking
them fifth in the country heading into action this week, and their total
yardage ranks them eighth.
Armstrong, Jr. hasn’t lit the world on fire, but he has managed the offense
effectively by completing 55.3 percent of his passes for 886 yards, nine TDs
and only two INTs. He also ranks second on the team in rushing yards with 354,
crossing the goal line twice.
Jordan Westerkamp and Bell sit atop the team’s receiving list with 14 grabs
apiece, with the former having one more receiving yard (285 to 284) and two
more TDs (three to one). As for Abdullah, he is hoping to continue his
Heisman-caliber season after amassing 625 yards and five TDs on 92 attempts
(6.8 ypc, 156.2 ypg).
Nate Gerry (25 tackles) is one of three defensive players with more than 20
stops, the team already with 13 guys with double-digit tackles. A lack of big
plays however hasn’t helped matters, as the Huskers have only four takeaways
while coming up with eight sacks.