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Husker Offense explodes in win over Illinois

Husker Offense explodes in win over Illinois
Courtesy/NU Media Relations

Lincoln – Nebraska showcased an explosive offense and an opportunistic defense on its way to an impressive 54-35 win over Illinois on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Nebraska’s 54 points marked the second straight Big Ten home game that the Huskers set their conference scoring record against another Big Ten team. On Oct 20, the Huskers scored 53 in a 25-point win over Minnesota.

In a game that featured more than 1,100 yards in offense, the Huskers amassed 606 total yards, including 316 on the ground and 290 through the air. The Blackshirts also did their part in helping the offense, nabbing two interceptions and forcing a fumble, while the Huskers also recovered a pair of muffed punts on special teams. Freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez and the offense turned the five Illini mistakes into 24 points.

With the victory, Nebraska improved to 3-7 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten, while notching their third consecutive home win at Memorial Stadium. In those three games, the Big Red are averaging 50.7 points per game. Illinois slipped to 4-6 overall and 2-5 in the conference.

Nebraska’s first-half offensive eruption was ignited by three Illinois turnovers, including a pair of muffed punts, that the Big Red converted into 17 points. The turnovers were the difference in Nebraska’s 38-21 halftime lead.

The second muffed punt by the Illini came in the final minute of the half, just seconds after Illinois cut the Nebraska lead to 31-21 with former Husker AJ Bush’s third touchdown run with 58 seconds left in the half. The Illinois defense then forced a three-and-out. Isaac Armstrong’s low, line drive punt carried 43 yards but bounced off Illinois return man Jordan Holmes’ chest and a mad scramble was on, resulting in a recovery by Nebraska special teams stalwart Jeramiah Stovall at the Illinois 7-yard-line with 20 seconds left. Three plays later, Martinez found tight end Jack Stoll in the middle of the end zone on a 12-yard touchdown pass to put the Big Red up 17 points.

It was Martinez’s third touchdown pass of the half, as he accounted for 196 total yards in the half, including 129 yards on 12-of-17 passing. He added 67 rushing yards and another score to become the Nebraska freshman season record holder for total yards, which was previously held by Taylor Martinez (2,596 in 2010).

Martinez finished the day with 345 yards of total offense, including 290 yards on 24-of-34 passing. He threw three touchdown passes and one interception.

Nebraska started fast, racing 75 yards in just three plays after winning the coin toss and electing to receive. Martinez opened with an eight-yard run, before rushing over the right end for a 30-yard burst. He capped the drive with a 37-yard scoring strike to Stanley Morgan Jr.  to give the Huskers a quick 7-0 lead just 1:02 into the game. It marked the sixth consecutive game that Nebraska scored on its first drive after receiving the opening kickoff.

The Illini’s high-powered rushing attack marched back on the Big Red, covering 76 yards on eight plays capped by Bush’s 11-yard touchdown run to tie the score with 10:39 left in the first quarter.

Nebraska showed no signs of slowing down, racing 89 yards in seven plays capped by Martinez’s nine-yard scoring run to put the Huskers back in front at 14-7 with 7:27 left in the quarter.

Bush struck again with an eight-yard touchdown run to cap a second consecutive eight-play, 76-yard drive to tie the score with 3:40 left in the opening period.

Martinez found Morgan again on the ensuing drive, hooking up with the senior receiver for the second time in the quarter to give Nebraska a 21-14 lead. Morgan finished the day with eight receptions for 131 yards. It was his second 100-yard receiving game of the season and seventh of his career. He finished the day at No. 2 on Nebraska’s career receiving yardage list with 2,599.

In a first quarter filled with fireworks, the two offenses combined for 424 total yards, including 241 yards and three touchdowns on just 16 plays for Nebraska.

The second quarter took on a different tone with three huge mistakes by the Illini. The first came on Armstrong’s first punt of the game for the Huskers, which carried 37 yards before being dropped by Illini return man Carlos Sandy. Long-snapper Chase Urbach sprinted down the field after his snap and jumped on the loose ball at the Illinois 45.

Martinez and the Huskers drove to the Illinois 10, but had to settle for Barret Pickering’s 27-yard field goal to take a 24-14 lead.

Bush and the Illini tried to rally, driving 52 yards in 10 plays before Blackshirt safety Tre Neal stripped the ball while tackling Bush. The Huskers wasted little time converting the turnover to points, as Devine Ozigbo sprinted 66 yards to paydirt for the longest run of his career on the third play of the drive to give Nebraska a 31-14 lead with six minutes left in the half.

Neal finished the game with 10 tackles and a pair of forced fumbles, while Mohamed Barry led the Blackshirts with 11 total tackles on the day to push his season total to 93.

Ozigbo added a four-year touchdown run in the third quarter and a 60-yard touchdown run in the fourth to close the scoring for the Huskers. The senior running back finished the day with 162 yards and a career-high three touchdowns on just 11 carries.

Bush rallied the Fighting Illini for a 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive that resulted in his third touchdown run with 58 seconds left in the half to cut the Husker edge to 31-21, but Illinois would get no closer the rest of the way after muffing their second punt of the half less than a minute later. Bush closed with a game-high 187 rushing yards and 313 yards of total offense, while going 11-for-25 for 126 passing yards with two interceptions.

Nebraska finished the half with 356 total yards, including 227 rushing yards, while Illinois put up 292 yards with 209 on the ground.

After forcing three turnovers in the first half, the Blackshirts added a fourth turnover on the opening drive of the second half when Aaron Williams intercepted a Bush pass across the middle to stop the Illini. For Williams, it was his first interception of the season.

Nebraska’s offense converted again, covering 82 yards in a season-long 17 plays over 7:53. The Huskers went 3-for-3 on fourth down on the drive, before Ozigbo scored on a four-yard run to give the Big Red a 45-21 lead with 4:07 left in the quarter. Before the drive, Nebraska was just 2-for-11 on fourth down this season.

In clearly Nebraska’s best special teams effort of the season, the Huskers extended the lead to 47-21 early in the fourth quarter with its first blocked punt of the year off the hands of Marquel Dismuke, which rolled out the back of the end zone for a safety.

The Illini managed a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns around Ozigbo’s 60-yard scoring sprint to make the final margin. Nebraska senior defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg put the exclamation point on the Husker win in the closing minute with his first career interception to give the Blackshirts their fifth turnover of the day. It marked the the most turnovers Nebraska has gained since getting six against Wyoming in 2016. It also marked the third straight game that the Big Red has gained at least three turnovers.

Nebraska will complete its home schedule next week when the Huskers play host to Michigan State on Senior Day at Memorial Stadium. Kick-off time and television information will be announced soon.

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