We knew that Illinois wasn't very good in the first three quarters of any game with Wes Lunt at quarterback. Then we learned that Lunt might not start the game. Then we never saw Lunt at all, because of an apparent leg injury suffered the week before against Texas State.
So what did we learn from Homecoming 2014? Nothing much that we didn't already know: Ameer Abdullah is really, really good. Tommy Armstrong has a great arm, but sometimes still doesn't make great decisions. The defense gets flummoxed on the first drive of the game and settles down as the game progresses.
And Nebraska is the last undefeated team in the Big Ten.
This report card comes with the same disclaimer that I gave for the 2012 Wisconsin pajama party in Lincoln: it wad difficult to tell who was on the field as the silver duct tape numbers on red were difficult, if not impossible, to read from the stands. Media in the press box said much the same thing. So take every mention of individuals with a grain of salt; I'm not sure I even completely trust the official box score. All I'm sure of is that the players wore Nebraska red.
And Ameer Abdullah is having a legendary season.
I-Back: Abdullah picked up right where he left off last week, rushing for 127 yards IN THE FIRST QUARTER, enroute to a 208 yard night. Once it be came clear that Illinois couldn't stop Nebraska on the ground - even by stuffing the box - Tim Beck wisely grounded the offensive game plan, meaning that Imani Cross saw plenty of action as well. And by the end of the game, even fourth stringer Jordan Nelson was gashing the Illini. (Oh, would it have been nice if Adam Taylor would have been available?) The only negative was Cross' first quarter fumble; that would have meant another 100% grade. As it is, we'll go with a solid A.
Quarterback: Another reason Tim Beck grounded the offense was that Tommy Armstrong wasn't good early in the game. That first quarter interception was a horrible decision and even worse throw. But that second quarter bomb to Kenny Bell was Armstrong at his best...a perfectly thrown strike. Armstrong was much better in the second half, completing seven of eleven passes and rushing for 64 yards. Which run was better? The quarterback draw or that fourth down scramble late in the game. (An unnecessary play, I might add, at that point in the game.) Grade: D for the first half, A for the second. Overall grade: C+
Wide Receivers: When the I-backs are consistently getting to the third level, you know the receivers are doing their part blocking. Beside Bell's deep catch, I saw Alonzo Moore make a nice grab as well. A boo to Tarik Allen for throwing an illegal pick to wipe out a Jordan Westerkamp. And of course, we can't forget Bell's groin for this catch...
Offensive Line: Have to give the offensive line credit when the Huskers are as dominant on the ground as they were. But I can nitpick with two holding calls against Mark Pelini and Alex Lewis. Need to clean that up. Grade: A-
Defensive Line: I thought Nebraska's front four on defense set the tone for the evening, especially Randy Gregory who's come on hard the last two weeks. Three tackles for loss, and three quarterback hurries. On one sack, Gregory went through two different Illini offensive linemen like they were junior high players. Greg McMullen was active as well. And when Nebraska unveiled their quarters defense with no linebackers, Gregory dropped behind the line of scrimmage as a quasi-linebacker...something else to keep offensive coordinators up at night. Grade: A-
Linebackers: If you somehow could track the uniform numbers, the only linebacker who played most of the game was Zaire Anderson...who showed up big on the stat sheet with nine tackles (three for loss) to lead the Huskers. As the game wore on, he seemed to grow into his role. Maybe he's the answer at middle linebacker? For much of the game, Nebraska rolled out a no linebackers/seven defensive back lineup which turned out to be quite effective against the Illini...but resulted in limited involvement for Trevor Roach and Josh Banderas. Grade: B
Secondary: Huge busts on Nebraska's opening series, where Corey Cooper got caught out of position on Josh Ferguson's long touchdown run. And I thought I caught Nate Gerry getting burned as well once or twice early...then he leaped for a big interception in the second quarter. Daniel Davie had the game of his career so far with two interceptions. Josh Mitchell got burned by Geronimo Allison a few times, though it was more Allison making plays than Mitchell making a mistake. His injury looked awfully scary at first, but after the game, Bo Pelini indicated that the injury wasn't as bad as feared initially. Could he play next week? Nebraska sure could use him against Michigan State. Grade: B
Overall: B+ Hard to argue with 624 yards of offense, and holding Illinois to eight punts and three interceptions (though one touchdown when Illinois threw a curve ball by switching to a power set from the spread) on defense. Yes, Illinois isn't very good...and with Wes Lunt missing, even worse...but it was still a good performance.
Elsewhere in College Football
Penn State: F James Franklin and Bill O'Brien did wonderful work trying to cover up the effects of the NCAA sanctions...but every so often, the reality of the situation breaks through. And this week, Northwestern pulled off the shocker.
Minnesota: A We'll get to the Weasels in a moment...but for a moment, let's give Minnesota credit for winning the Little Brown Jug.
Michigan State: A+ Has any team improved more over the last 12 months than the Spartans?
Michigan: 0 How Michigan played was bad enough. But how Brady Hoke and the Michigan medical staff mishandled quarterback Shane Morris is going to force athletic director Dave Brandon to act quickly. He might have preferred to wait until the end of the season, but when player safety is compromised like it was against Minnesota, Brandon has no choice but to act now.