LINCOLN — Ameer, there and everywhere.
That was the strategy for the Nebraska offense in its Big Ten opener with Illinois — feed the ball to the running backs and let them go to work.
The result: 50 rushes for 335 yards and a career day for a junior.
Ameer Abdullah toted the ball 20 times for 228 yards —11.2 yards per carry — and two touchdowns in helping the No. 23 Huskers (4-1, 1-0) bury the Fighting Illini (3-2, 0-1) 39-19 on Homecoming Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
“I thought Ameer played great. I thought he would and he did. I thought the game plan and the running game was good. I thought it set up well for Ameer,” head coach Bo Pelini said. “On top of that, he made a lot of guys miss. He’s a good back. I thought he played very well. But, obviously, we blocked well up front.”
“The offensive line, they were all in-sync. Their steps were great. Their splits were great. The receivers don’t get as much credit as they should blocking on the perimeter,” Abdullah said. “They did an excellent job today, as well as the fullbacks. Those are the guys who do all the dirty work. They never get their names put in the clippings. All you see is 225 from Ameer but you never see the hard work that Andy Janovich and C.J. Zimmerer do. I just tip my hat off to those guys.”
Sophomore Imani Cross added 84 yards off 15 carries and a score. Redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr. — starting for the second consecutive game in place of injured senior Taylor Martinez — battled the windy elements and competed 8-of-13 passes of 135 yards and two scores. He also added 31 yards on the ground.
He alternated snaps again with senior Ron Kellogg, who finished 3-of-6 for 51 yards in the pass game.
The Blackshirts, as criticized as they’ve been after their prior performances, did a better job of competing, according to Pelini. Illinois tallied 372 yards total offense, gave up two turnovers and didn’t score a touchdown until the middle of the third quarter.
“I liked a lot of things we did defensively. I know there are some things we did alignment-wise and we didn’t execute that didn’t hurt us that could hurt us moving forward. Overall, I saw some good things,” Peline said. “I saw definite progress, but nowhere near where we need to be.”
The defense set the tone early, forcing senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse and the Illinois offense into a three-and-out to start the game.
The Husker offense seized the early momentum, hitting on back-to-back drives led by Armstrong to nab a 14-0 advantage.
NU’s first possession went 57 yards in seven plays, capped off by Abdullah’s 2-yard score.
The Huskers then controlled the clock on their ensuing drive, going 69 yards in 10 plays as Armstrong found senior wide receiver sitting in the end zone for a 4-yard passing score.
Senior kicker Pat Smith hit a 27-yard field goal into the wind to open the second quarter and up NU’s lead to 17-0.
“It was very important. We always want to come out swinging the first punch,” Abdullah said of the early lead. “Usually the team throwing the first punch is going to control the M.O. of the whole game. I think we did a good job of that.”
Illinois didn’t get on the board until Taylor Zalewski had a 38-yard field goal at the 7:50 mark of the second quarter.
“It’s always tough, especially when you come to Nebraska and get down 17 points,” said Illinois head coach Tim Beckman. “Again with the wind, the first opportunity down there in the redzone, you got to get points in that situation, and we didn’t.”
The Huskers responded with their second 10-play drive of the half, scoring on a 2-yard run from sophomore Imani Cross out of the power I formation for a 23-3 lead. Smith missed the extra point.
NU’s offense finished with 521 total yards, but had an embarassing moment just before halftime.
After an Illini punt was downed inside the five-yard line, the Huskers elected to go into a shotgun formation and run a halfback zone play to Cross. Cross couldn’t get to outside and was hit in the endzone by Illinois’ Houston Bates for a safety.
NU led 23-5 at halftime. The offense would make amends in the third quarter for the safety thanks to two spectacular plays.
Abdullah hit his second touchdown of the game on a vintage Nebraska 43-yard run. Armstrong and Abdullah ran the option, and the running back received the pitch, looked as if he would be corralled on the sideline before he ran back towards the center of the field and found and open gap for six points.
“The guys did their best to bust down the field for me. A lot of times in college football the longer runs come from when teammates are blocking downfield,” Abdullah said. “One person I remember in particular was Jake Cotton. I got the ball, outran one guy and I looked up field and saw Jake Cotton busting his butt down field. He cut the guy off and I just did the rest.”
The offense’s next score was even more exciting than Abdullah’s scamper.
Armstrong lofted a pass to senior wide receiver Kenny Bell that appeared to be too high but Bell leaped and grabbed the ball with one hand and found his way into the endzone for a 37-yard score. Sophomore kicker Mauro Bondi missed the team’s second extra point of the game.
“It was lucky. Tommy placed the ball where only I could catch it and I threw a hand up there and it just stuck,” said Bell, who finished with four catches for 65 yards. “The only people more surprised than me that I caught it was (Illinois’) defensive backs. They didn’t tackle me. It was just one of those crazy plays in football that turned out pretty good for us.
“That was probably the best catch I’ve ever had. And the luckiest catch, as well.”
Smith nailed a 32-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.
Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson each had 1-yard touchdown runs for Illinois in the second half.
Nebraska goes on the road for the first time next Saturday for an 11 a.m. kickoff against Purdue.