Nebraska vs. Illinois Gallery Photo No. 6

Linebacker Luke Gifford (12) tackles Illinois quarterback Chayce Crouch for a sack on Sept. 29, 2017 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.

The Blackshirts have finally lived up to their name. After five weeks and a number of injuries, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s new approach is paying dividends.

Discounting the pick-sixes where the defense was not on the field, the Blackshirts have only allowed 23 points in the last 14 quarters. After a disastrous first half against Oregon, the defense closed the game without allowing a point. Against Northern Illinois, they only allowed seven points, against Rutgers, ten and against Illinois a six-point performance.

To say there has been improvement on the defensive side of the ball is an understatement. They have been dominant in all facets of the game and, in particular, the passing game.

Northern Illinois totaled 128 passing yards, Rutgers had 126 and Illinois scraped together 106. The defense allowed zero passing touchdowns and picked off opposing quarterbacks three times over the course of those three games.

Not only was the defensive holistically solid against Illinois, they also made big plays at the right moments. After Nebraska went up 7-0 in the first quarter, Illinois responded with a 15-play, 64-yard drive, where the Husker defense stood stout in the red zone, shutting down two runs and recording a sack to foil an otherwise promising Illini drive.

The play of the game came midway through the second quarter, as Illinois was driving down the field, facing a third down on the Nebraska 38-yard line. Senior linebacker Chris Weber made a phenomenal solo tackle five yards behind the line of scrimmage to end the play and push the Illini out of field goal range. The Husker offense carried that momentum into their third touchdown of the game and a 21-3 halftime lead.

Later in the game, the Husker defense held resolute once more, stopping another Illini drive within the 10-yard line. The secondary stepped up as they forced two incomplete passes, holding Illinois to another field goal.

They wouldn’t allow another point for the rest of the game, even after a Devine Ozigbo fumble backed up the defense at their own 35-yard line. Two sacks from Ben Stille and Chris Weber stalled the drive and forced a punt. As a whole, the Husker defense stepped up its pass-rush efforts to record five sacks.

Aside from Stille and Weber, Carlos Davis, Khalil Davis and Freedom Akinmoladun all recorded sacks. It was a step up from the Rutgers game, where the Husker defense did not record a single sack.

It’s far too early to crown this Blackshirt defense as one of the top in the country, but they deserve a tremendous amount of credit for their efforts, not only against Illinois but in the past 14 quarters. The test of the season is coming up for the Huskers, with Wisconsin and Ohio State at home in back-to-back weeks.

When Bob Diaco was hired, this was the type of result Husker fans wanted to see: a determined secondary, a great pass-rush and a “bend but do not break” attitude. It may be wishful thinking, but something about that harkens back to the Blackshirts of yesteryear.

It’s important to keep in mind that Illinois isn’t a powerhouse of the Big Ten, but this defensive performance deserves all the plaudits they will get. With two top-15 teams coming up, the real test lies ahead. But from what the Blackshirts showed against the Illini, there’s no reason not to be confident in them.

Assistant Sports Editor