Illinois’ defense no match for Nebraska’s offensive line
LINCOLN, Neb. — It didn't seem to matter where Nebraska tailback Ameer Abdullah wanted to run.
Whichever way he chose, there was a hole to welcome him.
And when he hit the hole, Abdullah turned the Illinois defense into the villains from Pac-Man. With every sharp change of direction, he left the Illini grasping and gasping in his wake.
That's how it played it out Saturday for Illinois' defense, which was a step behind and overwhelmed against a superior Nebraska offensive front in the Cornhuskers' 39-19 victory.
The result reinforced the ground Illinois (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten), which lost its 15th straight conference game, must make up to rebuild a winning foundation, particularly along its defensive line. Abdullah ran for a career-high 225 yards and two touchdowns behind a veteran line that punished the Illini.
"We knew they were big and physical," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. "It didn't shock me that they were who they were."
Illinois knew it would be an uphill battle in the trenches. The question was how tough the hill was. The answer: pretty steep.
To quantify what the Illini faced Saturday, of their four starting defensive linemen, all of whom former coach Ron Zook recruited, only one, Houston Bates, was a three-star recruit out of high school, according to Rivals.com.
They were facing an offensive line from Nebraska (4-1, 1-0) that featured multiple three-star recruits and a four-star prospect in right tackle Andrew Rodriguez. And then there is Spencer Long, a former walk-on who blossomed into a second-team All-America guard.
As Long demonstrates, the much-discussed star ratings are not an ironclad guide to evaluating talent, especially after players have been in a program for multiple years, but they can provide a rough sketch of what the Illini were up against and what they might face the rest of the season.
"We have who we have," Beckman said, "and we have to continue to create opportunities for our guys to be successful."
But as Saturday showed, that's easier said than done. Bates, meanwhile, refused to concede the Illini were outmanned.
"It wasn't as difficult as we anticipated," Bates said. "They ran a lot of cutback plays ... and that's just gap responsibility, and we need to work on that. It wasn't really what they did, it's what we didn't do."
On Saturday, that also included putting points on the board in windy conditions. The offense couldn't pick up the defense after falling behind 17-0. Three promising first-half drives yielded a Donovonn Young lost fumble, a turnover on downs and a field goal. Those offensive struggles, combined with the Illini's defensive helplessness, made it a breezy afternoon for Nebraska and a sobering one for Illinois.
"It's definitely a measuring stick," Beckman said. "It's something (to) look at and say, 'If we do these things right, maybe it's a different game.' "
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase exited the game late with a thigh bruise and did not return, but Beckman said he could have kept playing. Scheelhaase said after the game he felt fine.