If you were an Illinois fan who traveled to to Lincoln to watch the Illini in their season opener, it was an ugly cold and blustery day. For Husker fans, it was a methodical beat-down of a team that Nebraska was expected to beat convincingly prior to the season. Of course, after the first month of the season, Illinois was exceeding expectations while Nebraska was underperforming - especially on defense. So ever since the South Dakota State game, Husker fans have approached this game with a feeling of dread. Except, of course, for the Taylor Martinez haters who hoped that Tommy Armstrong would emerge as Tommie Frazier-like. (Sheesh. Talk about setting unreasonable expectations...)
Well, the Blackshirts played better. Not great, mind you. But better. Armstrong wasn't exactly Frazier-like, but he was efficient. His receivers bailed him out throughout the day, and he did show a couple of nifty moves on the option. Remember when people have wondered why Tim Beck had option plays in his offense? Taylor Martinez is a dynamic runner who doesn't seem to get the grasp of the option run, while Armstrong is an average runner with a gift for executing the option.
So Nebraska emerges with a 1-0 record and a three-way tie with Michigan and Michigan State for the lead in the Big Ten's west division. Meanwhile we bide our time for a make-or-break November which will decide the fate of this Husker squad.
So on to the report card for this week. As always, your comments are welcome!
QB: Tommy Armstrong had a decent day. His passing numbers turned out much better than his passing would have indicated. Some of that was due to the wind, of course. But even short throws were badly off-target (take the fourth down pass play to tight end Trey Foster. Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa, and Sam Cotton all snared some off-target throws. But Armstrong is a freshman, and did a decent job for the most part. He'll get better over time. Ron Kellogg was quite a bit less effective, though his playing time was almost entirely against the wind. Grade: B
RB: Ameer Abdullah's 240 yard day should no doubt earn him serious consideration for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors. Certainly seems to be a natural taking the pitch from Armstrong, like on that 43 yard touchdown run...which would have been the play of the day until Kenny Bell's one-handed gem. Imani Cross ended up with a decent day on the stat sheet, but his two fumbles on the day were concerning. (And were obviously on his mind later when he was using two hands to cover the ball.) I still believe that safety to be a bad call; Cross was knocked into the endzone on the initial contact, and never was able to get out.
Forward progress suggests that the ball should have been placed at the one or two yard line. Grade: B+
WR: Best receivers in the Big Ten? Hard to argue otherwise. Kenny Bell's one-handed wonder probably will end up on more than one post-season highlight reel.
Quincy Enunwa didn't have the spectacular catch, but did pull off a few impressive catches as well. And welcome to Husker football, Sam Cotton! His catch wasn't exactly graceful, but the potential he shows with good hands and size should make him yet another weapon to exploit. And let's make it clear, most of these catches weren't easy. Grade: A+
OL: No sacks on the day, and some big rushing numbers. Illinois' defense isn't all that great, but the line was doing it's job well... other than Jeremiah Sirles getting an illegal block penalty. Grade: A
DL: I wasn't surprised Aaron Curry started...I was surprised that he replaced Vincent Valentine. Not sure if this was motivation thing or what, because I haven't felt that Valentine was playing that poorly in comparison to others. I did think that seniors Thad Randle and Jason Ankrah played their best games of the season...but I'd still start Valentine and Avery Moss ahead of them. Meanwhile, Randy Gregory simply gets better and better each week. Grade: B
LB: I saw some good things out of the surprise group of David Santos, Jared Afalava, and Michael Rose. They did struggle with contain on Illinois running back Josh Ferguson, who's a pretty solid playmaker. KOZN radio's Damon Benning was on Twitter on Sunday showing how the little things like technique made a big difference in busted plays.
@jgarrett99 If Afalava's head is outside instead of in, the edge is set. #41 spills a run play w/ no edge. Its an 8" mistake & it mattered— Damon Benning (@damonbenning) October 6, 2013
The linebackers played better, but it's still not where they need to be. Grade: C
Secondary: Ciante Evans had a HUGE game disrupting Scheelhaase on the blitz. While Stanley Jean-Baptiste's four game interception streak came to an end, his blasting of Steve Hill on fourth and 11 was essentially a turnover. I've been a huge critic of Andrew Green, but he had a solid game on Saturday. Le Roy Alexander showed a little potential in a backup role at strong safety. Grade: B-
Special Teams: Tough day to kick with that swirling wind, but two missed extra points are inexcusable. Likewise, that illegal block penalty set up the Cross safety. Grade: D-
Coaching: I liked the game plan, and you could see the improvement on defense this week. But when it became clear that the officials weren't going to allow Nebraska to make defensive substitutions after Illinois made offensive substitutions, it's insane to keep trying it. Whether it's the ball being snapped while players were still trying to get into position, or getting penalized, it becomes inexcusable when it happens over and over again. The referees were wrong, but they weren't going to change their stripes. Just accept it for the time being, and play with the 11 on the field. And then discuss it in depth with Chicago after the game. Grade: D
Overall: B Impressive victory over a team that people thought was playing better this season.
Elsewhere Around Memorial Stadium
Students: D- OK, it was cold. But once again, many of you didn't bother to show up, and the students were the first to bail on the game. So much so, the drum line did their fourth quarter performance in the north end zone rather than in front of the desolate student section.
I don't know what the answer is, but those empty seats are embarrassing.
Concessions: F I can't speak to the rest of the stadium, but my wife spent her entire halftime going from concession stand to concession stand in a search for food. I think she got the last two hot dogs in the place at the start of the third quarter. Pizza, Runzas, hamburgers --- long sold out. No excuse for running out of food that early. Grade: F
Elsewhere in College Football
Maryland: 0 The Terrapins were the very definition of "turtling" on Saturday.
Iowa: F Nice job making Michigan State look like an offensive juggernaut for the first time in nearly two years.
Baylor: A+ 600 yards in the FIRST half? Ummm....wow.
Epilepsy: -1,000,000 This time, not even letting Jerry Kill leave his house.