Stryker: Steady Huskers figure out how to finish off Illinois

Category: Football

Stryker: Steady Huskers figure out how to finish off Illinois

Terrell Newby, beat-up offensive line spark another decisive fourth quarter

I have to confess that near the end of the third quarter, when Illinois led Nebraska 16-10 and ESPN pulled out the graphic that showed the last time the Illini beat Nebraska in back-to-back seasons (1923 and 1924, Red Grange’s sophomore and junior years), I had a flashback to last year’s 14-13 disaster. That windy, rainy day in Champaign was a clinic on how not to finish a football game. This year, the Huskers used the Illinois game to put on a different sort of clinic.

Nebraska is learning how to finish. The best thing about Mike Riley’s second season in Lincoln is his team’s newfound ability to win the fourth quarter.

Mike Riley and his coaching staff have been talking about finishing, and the 5-0 Cornhuskers are walking the walk as the season approaches the halfway point. In large part, it’s because Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf have stayed committed to running the ball, and the young Husker offensive line is starting to take over in the fourth quarter. Last season, the Huskers never ran the ball 40 times in a game until the bowl game. This year, they’ve done it every time out, and it’s paying off. The long, slow improvement of the young offensive line has gone a bit better than I anticipated.

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There’s less panic, more patience, both in the staff and among the players. A tough stretch in the schedule looms as October turns into November, but I get the feeling the Huskers will acquit themselves well. I’m not ready to predict wins at either Madison or Columbus, but I’m learning to expect a well-prepared team and a steady performance every week.

Last year’s team self-destructed at crunch time. But this is not last year. If Riley and his team have learned anything in the past year, it’s about how to overcome adversity and get stronger as the game goes on. Riley touched on this topic after the Huskers’ 31-16 win over Illinois, throwing a compliment at strength coach Mark Philipp.

“I think that our team has made plays to win games, and I think the fourth quarter is when you’re doing that,” he said. “I’m proud of that. Maybe whatever they did, and what our people did to condition them and to last and play. I don’t know if that’s a part of it, but it could be. I think the biggest part is the mental competitiveness. Keep your poise, keep playing, even though it wasn’t very pretty, and then make some plays to win the game.”

The Blackshirts made some nice plays in the second half, but the linebackers weren’t sharp and they certainly don’t look like the strength of the defense, as they did last season. Illinois finished with a higher average per play than did Nebraska, but only got 44 snaps. The Husker kicking game was steady. But this win was primarily a product of NU’s improved offensive performance. Tommy Armstrong deserves a lot of credit, especially for that 6-yard touchdown pass to Trey Foster that he drilled while rolling left, showing adequate footwork while throwing across his body. He’s known as a running quarterback, but he’s on track to break most Nebraska career passing records before the season ends. His interception cost NU a possible 10-point swing, but he shook it off and played a good second half.

I may be a bit premature in my praise. The offense suffered from a lack of rhythm early on, when seemingly every fourth or fifth play ended in a penalty, an injury or a turnover. Lovie Smith used his bye week to conjure up new strategies for his already-solid defensive line, and Langsdorf had a hard time solving them. This game teetered in the balance until the Huskers put together an 18-play, 75-yard drive that consumed 10 minutes, 42 seconds on the clock, and more than half an hour in real time, spanning a quarter break, an injury, a fourth-down conversion by inches, with a measurement and a subsequent video review, giving the Blackshirts enough time on the sidelines to plan their spring-semester class schedules.

As unsteady and perilous as that march was (the Huskers were lucky to get a horse-collar personal foul penalty on third-and-long that extended the drive), it was a test the young and beat-up offensive line needed to pass. That line picked up momentum and punched out 113 of its 203 rushing yards in the fourth quarter. It sprung Terrell Newby for the best quarter of football he has ever played at Nebraska. With Devine Ozigbo sidelined with an ankle injury, Newby carried the ball 16 times in the fourth quarter alone, and 27 for the game, finishing with 140 yards and two touchdowns. His 63-yard lightning bolt slammed the door on the Illini; it was a real thing of beauty.

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Those of you itching to see second-string Husker offensive linemen play, this was your game. Sam Hahn, Corey Whitaker and Cole Conrad — none of whom were starters in fall camp — got the job done for Nebraska. Hahn has filled in at left guard all year for Jerald Foster, who suffered an ACL tear shortly before the first game. Whitaker played right guard for Tanner Farmer, who sat out the entire game with an ankle injury he sustained at Northwestern, and right tackle David Knevel left the game with another ankle injury.

Even my good friend, Mr. Glass-Is-Two-Thirds-Empty Husker Fan, seemed impressed with Hahn, Whitaker and Conrad. A true offensive line purist, he complained about the o-line struggles in the first half, but was ready to give grudging praise as the tide turned. “STEPPED UP @ RIGHT TIME” he texted me late in the game.

So far, this team has found a way to answer every challenge. There’s a certain steadiness about it. NU is finding ways to win the games it should, although certainly not looking ready to outclass anyone just yet. With Cethan Carter and Jordan Westerkamp joining Knevel and Ozigbo on the sidelines, a week of healing is just what this team needs. There’s a season to finish, and they’ll likely all be needed.

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at Stryker is a freelance writer, favoring topics related to Nebraska history or Christianity. You can buy his recent book at this link.