LINCOLN — "Well, did you all stay for that fourth quarter?"
That's the question head football coach Mike Riley asked to open his postgame press conference Saturday after No. 15 Nebraska scored 21 unanswered fourth quarter points to finish off Illinois, 31-16, at Memorial Stadium.
The Huskers were by no means as perfect as their 5-0 record, failing to move the ball effectively with a dilapidated offensive line while the defense whiffed on too many tackles in the first half.
"It didn't look like much until the fourth," the coach said.
But, as has been the case in every game so far in 2016, the second half was a different story, as the Huskers outscored the Illini, 21-3.
"I'm actually really, really proud of this team because Illinois had the edge early, but I was pleased with our ability to stay in it, play better and make big plays to win the game," said Riley, as Nebraska improved to 3-5 when trailing at halftime during his tenure. "That's great stuff. Obviously, we've got work to do, but that part of it is a great thing to have."
The Huskers trailed 13-10 at halftime and 16-10 after three quarters. By night's end, fans were hopping in ecstasy to DJ Kool's 'Let Me Clear My Throat.'
That's because the line — playing with three former walk-ons, as two starters were unavailable — wore down Illinois' strong defensive front in the final 15 minutes.
Through three quarters, NU had just 89 rushing yards on 31 carries for an average gain of 2.8 yards. In the fourth quarter alone, it averaged 6.3 yards per rush.
Nebraska finished with 423 yards of total offense, including 203 on the ground, as running back Terrell Newby churned out a team-high 140 rushing yards with two touchdowns.
Under Riley, the Huskers improved to 8-0 when surpassing the magic number of 200 rushing yards.
"It was hard. I thought it would be a difficult game to block them, because that's a good defensive front seven we faced," said offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf. "On the line, we've been proud of the next man up. We're thin there. Our guards got beat at times, but in the fourth quarter, they took it over.
"We changed a few things up and we were able to hit some big runs late in the game."
Newby capped off a long, 18-play drive that lasted 30 minutes of real time and took up 10:42 of game clock when he scored from 3-yards out to put NU up for good, 17-16.
"Illinois hardly had the ball in the second half, and that drive was a result of that," Riley said. "I thought that was good."
"That drive took a lot of time," Langsdorf added, "and that was big part of the game. I think we wore on them and kept staying with it."
The next possession was just as methodical, lasting 5:49 before quarterback Tommy Armstrong found back-up tight end Trey Foster for a 6-yard touchdown pass with 4:32 remaining.
After the Blackshirts forced Illinois to punt, Newby brought the house down with a 63-yard touchdown run that cemented the victory.
"I think those guys didn't blink, didn't panic," Langsdorf said. "They just kept playing. Our guys are resilient and tough. We hit some runs that flipped the numbers, but it wasn't easy. I think our guys just continued to battle and finish strong."
With the three fourth-quarter touchdowns, Nebraska has now outscored its five opponents 78-6 in the final quarter. That's a far cry from last year, where the Huskers dropped five games by less than a five-point margin to finish 6-7.
"I think that our team has made plays to win games, and the fourth quarter is when we're doing that," Riley said. "Whatever our people did to condition our players to last and finish at the end...that could be a big part of it. And also the mental competitiveness of it. We kept our poise and kept playing, even though it wasn't pretty."
Defensive coordinator Mark Banker, whose defense has helped Nebraska outscore its opponents 120-31 in the second half this season, also praised the team's offseason workout program.
"The players are determined to stay with it and grind through the good and bad times. They're learning how to finish," Banker said. "And I think Mark Philipp and the strength and condition crew have done a great job, too, because we have a lot of stamina."