By Steve Beideck
CHAMPAIGN, Illinois – A Blackshirt bounce back Friday night led Nebraska to its first Big Ten Conference victory of the season and the first for coach Matt Rhule.
A gutsy goal-line stand on the opening drive of the game and stopping another fourth-and-1 near midfield helped the Huskers win a 20-7 slugfest over Illinois before an announced crowd of 46,703 at Memorial Stadium.
The Huskers are now 3-3 with a 1-2 record against Big Ten foes heading into their bye week before Northwestern comes to Lincoln for the Oct. 21 homecoming game. Illinois dropped to 2-4 and 0-3 in the Big Ten West.
Nebraska snapped a three-game losing streak to the Illini, including a 26-9 setback in Lincoln last season. The Huskers are now 14-6-1 all-time against Illinois, including a 7-4 record since joining the Big Ten.
Twice from inside the Nebraska 1-yard line on its opening drive the Illinois offense couldn’t get the ball to break the plane of the goal line, even as the Illini ran the scrum sneak that the Philadelphia Eagles have mastered.
That was one of the many times the sounds of Nebraska fans cheering overpowered the boos and groans of the Fighting Illini faithful.
Nebraska, starting from inside its 1-yard line, then moved the ball 86 yards in 13 plays. The drive ended with Tristan Alvano making a 31-yard field goal to give the Huskers a lead they would never relinquish.
The Nebraska front seven was a wall throughout the game. After getting stung for 251 rushing yards by the potent Michigan offense six days earlier, the Blackshirts looked as they did in its first four games.
On that opening drive that ended with Nebraska’s heroic goal line stand, the Illini gained 23 of their 74 yards on seven rushing plays.
By the time halftime rolled around, Illinois had only increased that total by two yards on eight carries, meaning the Illini finished the first 30 minutes with 25 yards rushing on 15 plays.
Even backing out the two runs at the end of the goal-line stand, the Illini averaged less than two yards per carry in the first half.
With two tackles behind the line of scrimmage on their opening drive of the second half, Illinois was down to a net of 17 total yards through three quarters.
The final rushing total for Bret Bielema’s bunch was 21 yards on 19 carries. That’s the lowest total allowed this season by the Huskers. The previous low was 26 yards on Sept. 16 to Northern Illinois.
It’s the fifth time this season the Huskers have held their opponent to less than 60 yards rushing.
Nebraska stopped Illinois again late in the third quarter on a fourth-and-1, but this time the drive ended at the 50.
Special teams also played a big part in the win. In addition to two field goals by Alvano, the freshman from Omaha Westside had a kickoff that wasn’t fielded by the Illini and was covered by the Huskers.
On the next play quarterback Heinrich Haarberg went 25 yards up the middle for Nebraska’s second touchdown. With Alvano’s extra point kick, the Huskers had a 17-0 lead with 6:37 remaining before halftime.
The Huskers’ first TD came 10 seconds prior to Haarberg’s score. Running back Anthony Grant went the final yard to cap a 14-play, 79-yard drive that put NU ahead 10-0.
Haarberg and Grant finished as Nebraska’s leading rushers – Haarberg with 82 yards on 18 carries, and Grant with 56 yards on 20 carries. Emmett Johnson, who filled in for Grant after he left the game briefly with an injury, gained 29 yards on seven carries.
Nebraska had several chances to increase its lead in the fourth quarter but finished the second half scoring just three points in seven drives thanks in large part to a pair of lost fumbles and an interception by Haarberg.
Blaise Gunnerson also had a blocked punt that led to no points, and NU got nothing following a Quinton Newsome interception that he returned 39 yards deep into Illinois territory.