LINCOLN — If the start of Big Ten play for Nebraska is any indication of what this team wants to do with its offense, chances are the Cornhuskers are heading into the conference season loaded for bear.
With starting quarterback Taylor Martinez still on the shelf with a toe injury, Nebraska turned to a pounding running game to wear down an Illinois defense that rates near the bottom of the league overall, getting out of Memorial Stadium with a 39-19 win to go 1-0 in conference.
While junior I-back Ameer Abdullah may grab the headlines with his 225 yards rushing on 20 carries, including 43-yard touchdown run where he cut back against the grain and broke tackles, Abdullah was quick to praise his teammates for opening up holes – most notably fullbacks Andy Janovich and CJ Zimmerer.
“The headlines may say Ameer had 225 yards, but those guys do all the hard work and you don’t see their names in the clippings,” he said.
“Our offensive line is a strong bunch. In college football, the long runs come when your teammates are blocking downfield.”
In all, Nebraska finished with 335 yards rushing on 50 attempts, and the Husker offensive line was clearly wearing out the Illinois defense.
Nebraska starting offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles said he and his teammates on the offensive front were excited to hear coaches say the game plan would be to run straight at the Illini defense.
“If we can put up over 300 yards rushing it’s going to be a bad day for the defense,” Sirles said. “When you say we’re going to run the ball, we love that.”
Starting guard Spencer Long said Nebraska benefited from going out and having fun. To an offensive lineman that means pounding the opponent.
“We’re getting better every week and growing as a team,” he said.
“It’s when you play well … to try to dominate the guy in front of you. We just want to give our backs an opportunity and we did.”
Nebraska Head Coach Bo Pelini said he was pleased with how the offense as a whole operated with Tommy Armstrong under center.
“I thought Tommy played well,” he said. “He made some mistakes that I think he’ll learn from. Overall, I think he did some really good things.”
Pelini said the game plan to run the ball against that Illinois front played into Nebraska’s strengths.
“I thought Ameer played great,” he said. “I thought the game plan and the running game was good. I thought it set up well for Ameer. But obviously we blocked well up front.”
Illinois Head Coach Tim Beckman said he knew his defense faced a stiff challenge in going up against Nebraska’s offensive line.
“They are big and physical, and we knew they were big and physical,” he said. “Heck there is four of them back, so you knew they were a physical group. It didn’t shock me who they were.”
Imani Cross finished with 76 yards on 15 carries, including a long run of 28 yards and a touchdown.