This time, Nebraska’s fourth-quarter performance sinks Illinois
Five games in, Nebraska isn’t changing the formula.
What’s the formula? Pound the rock, get third-down stops, don’t let the scoreboard dictate third-quarter play-calling and dominate the fourth quarter. Strong emphasis on that last thing.
Last year, the fourth-quarter woes did Nebraska in against Illinois. This year, Nebraska’s fourth-quarter execution was the difference. The 21-0 fourth-quarter for Nebraska gave the Huskers a 78-6 advantage in that department this season. Without that fourth-quarter turnaround, Illinois is partying in Lincoln right now and celebrating a second straight victory against the Huskers.
But the Huskers stuck to the plan and didn’t tighten up when things got…well, tight.
It would’ve been easy to do just that. After all, the Huskers were staring at a deficit entering the fourth quarter against an Illini team it was favored to beat by 20 points. In that spot last year, the Huskers were a mess. Saturday looked like business as usual.
There was nothing sexy about it. It was the exact run-heavy formula that wore down the first four defenses that faced Nebraska.
College teams usually don’t run 18-play drives that last 10-plus minutes. Somehow, that’s what Nebraska did down the stretch. And of those 18 plays, 14 of them were runs.
It didn’t matter to Nebraska that Illinois came into Saturday’s game tied first in FBS in sacks and third and tackles for loss. Credit Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf for trusting in the ground game. That’s what got the Huskers to 4-0, and that’s what got them to 5-0.
Instead of relying on Tommy Armstrong to make plays against a relentless defensive line, Nebraska didn’t leave it up to chance. They punched them in the mouth and did the dirty work.
It’s such a night-and-day feeling from last year. It always felt like the 2015 group racked up the yardage and put up big numbers, but didn’t do the dirty work needed to win.
The fourth-quarter dominance is all the proof you need to believe that this year is a different story.
Illinois was held to just 21 plays in the entire second half. The Blackshirts looked rested and focused down the stretch. Whether it was Aaron Williams coming up with a big third-down deflection or Freedom Akinmoladun getting pressure on Wes Lunt, Nebraska didn’t let Illinois get into any sort of rhythm.
That’s been a theme throughout this season. No offense gets in rhythm against Nebraska in the fourth quarter anymore. Illinois and Northwestern aren’t exactly rewriting the offensive record books, but that was even true against Oregon.
Again, that comes back to the Nebraska offense sustaining long drives. Converting 10-of-14 third downs has something to do with that. Not turning the ball over in the second half has something to do with that, too.
That’s a credit to an offensive line that’s getting the job done, regardless of who gets rolling in the Husker backfield. On Saturday, it was Terrell Newby. The last two weeks, it was Armstrong. In the opener, it was Devine Ozigbo.
Someone will do it. Nebraska has that kind of confidence right now.
The Huskers will go into the bye week with some health issues. Getting Jordan Westerkamp and Cethan Carter to 100 percent is key for this team. And Armstrong had a noticeable limp at points on Saturday.
But heading into the meat of the B1G schedule, the Huskers have a formula that works. This year, Nebraska owns fourth quarter.