Published Saturday, October 5, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 12:41 am
FOOTBALL
Chill in the air puts a charge in offensive line

LINCOLN — Clouds rolled in to blanket the sun's warmth, and the strong south wind intensified the season's first autumn chill.

It was exactly the kind of October day that a veteran offensive line was hoping for.

Senior guard Spencer Long stood in the north end zone during warmups with his O-line buddies, talking about just that. They discussed it in the locker room and once more in the huddle before their first possession.

Stay focused. Take control. Get nasty.

The five seniors and three juniors who make up Nebraska's eight-man rotation up front wanted Saturday's Big Ten opener against Illinois to be their day. And it was.

The Husker offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage throughout, creating running lanes and keeping the pocket clean, as NU rolled to a 39-19 victory against Illinois.

“Breaking it down before the first drive, we were like, 'Hey. The wind's blowing. It's freezing. … This game's going to be on us,' ” Long said. “We were pumped up about it. We always embrace that kind of stuff.”

Nebraska finished with 335 rushing yards on 50 attempts (6.7 yards per carry), the most against a conference opponent since the Huskers rolled up 346 on the ground in a blowout over Minnesota in 2011.

Ameer Abdullah had 225 yards, but he evaluated his career day by repeatedly giving all credit to the players who moved Illinois defenders out of his way. Those linemen often get overlooked, Abdullah said.

But it was hard to miss Nebraska's offensive line Saturday.

On Abdullah's 43-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, he saw junior guard Jake Cotton diving to take out an Illini defender 20 yards downfield. That cleared the way for Abdullah to cut back and break free. A convoy of linemen followed him to the end zone.

The goal Saturday was to get the backs into the second level. The Illini's aggressive style could result in negative plays, but it also made them vulnerable to big gainers.

To succeed, NU had to be relentless.

“There was one point where I thought a bomb went off and I looked over and Jake Cotton had come down, pulled and hit their buck linebacker,” junior receiver Kenny Bell said. “I was like, 'Wow.' I asked the guy if he had a headache, cause I know I would have.”

That was the tone from the start.

The Huskers knew Illinois would do everything it could to create confusion. NU coaches said the Illini defensive line uses just about every alignment in the book. And in the Illini's 3-4 defense, built to disguise blitzes, film study proved that Illinois was bringing extra guys almost half the time.

Linebackers Jonathan Brown and Mason Monheim were the Big Ten's top tacklers heading into Saturday's action, able to shoot through gaps in offensive lines and swarm ball carriers.

“It'll be tough to find another team in the Big Ten that presents as many different looks as they do,” offensive line coach John Garrison said.

It's the type of approach that Nebraska has struggled with in the past. But not Saturday.

The Huskers adjusted before the snap, then showcased their intensity and tenacity after it.

Said Illinois coach Tim Beckman: “Heck, there is four of them (starters) back, so you knew they were a physical group.”

Saturday wasn't perfect. There were missed blocks. One was flagged as illegal. After the game, Garrison pointed out a couple of mistakes in pass protection. Film review will most certainly reveal more.

But when miscues occurred, the NU offensive line didn't let them pile up. A younger unit might have crumbled.

“It really comes down to them being mature,” Garrison said.

Determined, too. Especially on a day like Saturday.

“That's what we live for,” center Cole Pensick said. “We love running the ball.”

* * *

Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Illinois game:



Video: NU's Ameer Abdullah after the Illinois game:



Video: NU's Tommy Armstrong after the Illinois game:



Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:

Contact the writer: Jon Nyatawa

jon.nyatawa@owh.com    |   402-473-9585    |  

Jon Nyatawa has covered local sports, primarily Nebraska football and baseball, for The Omaha World-Herald since 2008.

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