For the second straight game, Taylor Martinez did not start at quarterback for Nebraska. And for the second straight game, the Huskers came away with a home victory without their starting quarterback.
Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw for two touchdowns, and junior running back Ameer Abdullah ran for a career-high 228 yards to lead Nebraska (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) to a 39-19 win Saturday over Illinois (3-2, 0-1) in its first conference game of the season. In his second consecutive start, Armstrong Jr. completed eight of his 13 passes for a 135 total passing yards, while also rushing for 18 yards.
“I thought Tommy played well,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said after the game. “Overall, I thought he did some really good things. Obviously dealing with the wind was a good experience for him. He managed the game very well.”
Armstrong began the game firing all cylinders. After the defense forced the Fighting Illini to go three and out on the first possession, Armstrong completed a pass to senior tight end Jake Long for a 9-yard gain to move the Huskers inside Illinois’ 35-yard line. Runs of 30 yards and 2 yards by Abdullah capped the drive off with a touchdown and early 7-0 advantage for Nebraska.
The Huskers offensive success continued on the next drive, this time predominantly through the air.
Armstrong began the Huskers’ second drive with a 26-yard pass to senior wide receiver Quincy Enunwa and finished the drive with a 4-yard touchdown pass to put Nebraska up 14-0. Enunwa’s sixth touchdown reception of the season bumped him into the top 10 on Nebraska’s all-time receptions list and made him the 22nd Husker to record 1, 000 receiving yards. The senior captain finished with a team-high 80 receiving yards.
And it wasn’t just the connections between Armstrong and Enunwa that highlighted the day.
“I thought Ameer played great. I thought he would, and he did,” Pelini said. “He made a lot of guys miss, and he’s a good back.”
Abdullah, who finished the first half with 81 rushing yards, doubled his total in the second half to compile a career-high total 225. The junior I-back’s previous high was 167 against Arkansas State last season.
Abdullah credited his teammates for his career-high performance.
“The guys did their best to bust down the field for me,” Abdullah said. “A lot of times in college football the longer runs come from when teammates are blocking downfield. How we prepared was really key. I feel like we can really run the ball with those guys."
But it wasn’t just on the offensive side of the ball Nebraska impressed its coach Saturday.
“I like a lot of things we did defensively,” Pelini said. “I saw some definite progress.”
The Blackshirts recorded 12 tackles for loss, including three sacks on Illini senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
After focusing the past two weeks in practice on executing tackles and communication, defensive coordinator John Papuchis said he noticed improvement against Illinois.
“I thought there was a lot more conviction in terms of their resolve and toughness they showed,” Papuchis said.. “The talk in the huddle was real positive, and I thought there was definite improvement on what we’ve seen.”
Although four Fighting Illini receivers finished Saturday’s game with 20 or more receiving yards, the Big Ten’s leading passer completed just 13 of his 26 passing attempts for 135 yards.
“They throw a lot at you. They’re in five-wides,” Papuchis said. “They make you earn everything you get. That’s a pretty good offense. Holding that group to under 300 yards and 12 points up until the final drive, I was pretty pleased with that.”
Unlike its previous games this year, the Husker defense applied pressure all game.
Redshirt freshmen linebackers Michael Rose and Jared Afalava finished their first starts with a combined 19 tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack by Afalava.
Although Pelini said the Huskers aren’t where he wants them to be just yet, he’s hopeful to see the progress continue in its next game against Purdue next week.
“I saw our guys take some of the stuff we talked about during the week, and we transformed it to the field,” he said. “We did a lot better job, and that’s what you want to see as a coach. I saw our guys respond well, I saw progress and that’s what you look for.”