LINCOLN — Redshirt freshman Avery Moss had been in this position before.
With Nebraska seemingly in control, the Blackshirts hit the field just before halftime Saturday.
Three weeks earlier, a 21-3 lead against UCLA dwindled with a late first-half touchdown before a second-half onslaught in the 41-21 loss.
“They scored right there,” the defensive end said, “and that completely shifted the momentum.”
On Saturday, Nebraska led 23-5 after an Illinois safety. Moss said the similarities weren't lost on the players and coaches.
“It was mainly just like, 'We've been talking the talk for weeks. Now it's time to walk the walk,' ” he said. “A lot of the coaches were saying, 'This is that series, that series we always like struggle with,' and stuff like that.”
But Nebraska didn't struggle this time. It forced a three-and-out near midfield and rode the momentum to a solid defensive outing.
Until a last-minute touchdown, the Huskers were on track for their lowest point output allowed this season.
Moss said late first-half situations have been key in each of Nebraska's games this season. He credited the work the Huskers did during their bye week and a renewed focus level for the victory.
“When you play with a swagger and a confidence that you can't be stopped, really it's all up to you,” he said.
Bell on his highlight grab: It was lucky
Junior Kenny Bell said he was surprised that he hauled in a leaping one-handed grab in the third quarter Saturday, calling it the “luckiest catch” he's ever had.
Nebraska was facing a third-and-8 when Tommy Armstrong rifled a pass that sailed high as it approached Bell, who was about 20 yards downfield. He jumped, caught the ball and ran about 15 more yards for a score, putting NU up 36-12.
“Tommy placed the ball where only I could catch it, and I threw a hand up there and it just stuck,” Bell said. “Just one of those crazy plays in football that turned out pretty good for us.”
Armstrong said he thanked Bell for making the play — because a safety was waiting over the top to intercept the pass.
“It was a great thing to see,” Armstrong said.
Bell certainly was excited about it. He crossed the goal line, dropped the ball and held up both hands as he sprinted across the end zone. Bell was flagged for excessive celebration.
Bell admitted afterward that he'll hear from the coaches about that, though he wasn't exactly sure what he did wrong.
“Big plays in football. If you can't celebrate, then why are we playing?” Bell said. “It's a fun game. You're in the moment. I didn't think it was too out of hand.”
Blackshirts add two more turnovers to plus side
Nebraska came out on the right side of the turnover battle again Saturday, thanks to the defense forcing a fumble and intercepting a pass.
NU is plus-five on the season, with 12 takeaways. Though the Huskers have had their problems defensively, they have forced at least two turnovers in four of five games, with the exception being the loss to UCLA.
“We always talk about how we're a little more athletic than we've been in the past, and I think the turnovers and takeaways are kind of a product of that,” NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.
Papuchis said the goal of the Nebraska defense is to force three turnovers a game.
“So we're still a little bit shy of that, but the fact that we're getting the takeaways is a positive and usually they've been turned into points,” he said. “We just got to keep trying to get the ball.”
On Saturday, Ciante Evans forced a Donovonn Young fumble that safety LeRoy Alexander recovered in the first quarter. Jason Ankrah then intercepted a pass in the third after Evans hit quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase on a blitz.
NU cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste said 12 isn't a bad number, and it also puts the Huskers on pace to exceed the 23 they forced last season in 14 games.
“Yeah, we can't get mad at that,” he said. “That's all right.”
Mitchell and Turner miss time with injuries
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said starting corner Josh Mitchell should be “OK” after missing the second half with an undisclosed injury. Mitchell was seen limping and on the training table Saturday. He was replaced by Jonathan Rose.
“He got banged up,” Pelini said. “He should be fine.”
Wide receiver Jamal Turner pulled a hamstring during the game.
“I don't know how nasty that is,” Pelini said. “You know how hamstrings can be. Usually we'll know a lot more about that in the next day or two.”
Linebacker Zaire Anderson missed the game with a bone bruise that he suffered last week. Michael Rose replaced Anderson and led the Huskers with 11 tackles. Pelini said Anderson should return in time to play against Purdue.
“He could have played, but Zaire couldn't push off his leg and he was having a lot of pain,” Pelini said. “He'll be fine in the next few days. But I thought Michael Rose performed pretty well. He looked very confident. It looked like he did a lot of good things out there.”
Quarterback Taylor Martinez — who hasn't played since the UCLA game — wore a walking boot on his left foot Saturday. He continues to suffer from turf toe. When Martinez is healthy, Pelini said, he'll regain his starting job.
Missed extra points rankle Pelini
Pelini saw the problems in practice. That doesn't mean he accepted seeing them in the game.
Nebraska kickers Pat Smith and Mauro Bondi each missed an extra point Saturday. Neither miss was blocked or deflected.
“That's a big level of concern. It's inexcusable. It's not acceptable,” Pelini said. “That's the way we kicked during the week. We didn't miss any extra points, but they have to raise their sense of urgency. They've got to get it figured out.
“We weren't good enough in practice during the two weeks. I had to jump them a couple times in practice. Our consistency there has got to pick up. If it doesn't, it's gonna cost us a football game. It can't happen that way. Fortunately, it didn't hurt us today. But that'll kill you down the line.”
Report: Osborne to serve on playoff selection committee
ESPN reported Saturday that former Nebraska coach and Athletic Director Tom Osborne will serve on the first College Football Playoff selection committee in 2014. According to ESPN, Osborne is part of a 13-member panel that includes Wisconsin Athletic Director and former NU player Barry Alvarez, former college quarterback Archie Manning, a former sportswriter from USA Today, former secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a retired Air Force Academy superintendent.
— Nick Rubek, Jon Nyatawa, Rich Kaipust and Sam McKewon