Friday, September 29, 2017

Nebraska 28, Illinois 6: Huskers dominate behind Lee's breakout performance

                                                            Photo Credit: Geno Green

CHAMPAIGN, Ill.— In an underwhelming start to the season with nine interceptions in the first four games, quarterback Tanner Lee bounced back as Nebraska (3-2, 2-0 Big Ten) continued to climb back into respectability in the Big Ten with a 28-6 win against Illinois (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) at Memorial Stadium Friday night.

Lee showed poise and received plenty of protection from the offensive line as he went 17-of-24 for three touchdowns through the air and finished with a quarterback rating of 198.2.

Nebraska’s wide receivers came alive as Stanley Morgan finished with a game-high 96 yards, on eight receptions for a touchdown, while De’Mornay Pierson-El amassed 94 yards, highlighted by a 45-yard TD reception in the first quarter.

Illinois running back Mike Epstein came into the game sixth in the FBS with an average of 73.7 rushing yards per game, but would be neutralized by the Nebraska defense to 42 yards on 10 carries.

Cornhuskers coach Mike Riley praised both sides of the ball for a complete effort from start to finish.

“It was a balanced football game on offense and defense. We don’t have to pass more, we have to pass more efficiently,” Riley said. “The passing lanes were created well tonight with playaction coupled with the running game, that can be a nice combination going forward.”

Not quite the old blackshirts, but the Huskers defense finished with five sacks and 10 tackles for loss, but Riley came away more impressed with their key stops when the Illini entered the red zone twice and allowed six points.

“I thought the defense rose up all night long and Illinois had some nice looking drives, but our ability to keep them out of the end zone was beautiful,” Riley said.

On 3rd and 10, Illini free safety Bennett Williams got ejected from the game for targeting on Cornhuskers tight end Tyler Hoppes, which left Julian Hylton as the only other free safety on the Illini depth chart for at least one half. Nebraska took advantage of the targeting penalty as Lee connected off his back foot to a Pierson-El for a 45-yard touchdown reception to open the scoring.

The Cornhuskers found themselves with early momentum— something they had struggled with for most of the season.

Illinois quarterback Chayce Crouch took matters into his hands on the next drive with six carries for 26 yards, but would be sacked by Nebraska linebacker Ben Stille for a loss of five yards. A 25-yard FG conversion from Chase McLaughlin put the Illini on the board three seconds into the second quarter, but chewed up 9:00 in time of possession.

Lee responded on Nebraska’s next drive with precision as the offensive line gave him plenty of a time to find receivers left and right going 5-of-5 for 52 yards through the air, which set up a 15-yard TD run from Devine Ozigbo, who finished with a game-high 106 yards on the ground. Nebraska took control at 14-3 as the energy in the stadium came to a halt.

A stalled Illinois drive led to Nebraska’s answer on its next series as Lee continued to pick apart the defense like a surgeon as a series of moderate receptions led to a 6-yard touchdown rollout to Hoppes as the lead increased to 21-3 and started to look more like the team picked as a contender in the Big Ten West after 30 minutes in regulation.

Like the movie Groundhog Day, Illinois drove to Nebraska’s goal line, but forced to settle for another 25-yard field goal conversion from McLaughlin as Crouch threw back-to-back incompletions to Ricky Smalling and Malik Turner, which led to the attempt.

A fumble recovery by free safety Stanley Green put Illinois in prime position for another scoring opportunity at the Nebraska 32-yard line, but lost 14 yards and taken out of field goal range— highlighted by a 12-yard sack by defensive end Carlos Davis.

Morgan put the icing on the cake as he edged the sideline going 23 yards to the end zone from Lee as the Huskers exacted revenge at Memorial Stadium from their 14-13 loss to the Illini back on Oct. 3, 2015.

Only time will tell if Nebraska’s performance is a one-trick pony or the start of something special.

Looking Ahead:

Both teams return to action on Oct. 7 as the Fighting Illini goes to Iowa City to take on Iowa Hawkeyes at 11 a.m. CT, while the Cornhuskers host the No. 11 Wisconsin Badgers at 7 p.m. CT.