LINCOLN — Picking up yards didn't seem difficult for the Illinois offense Saturday against Nebraska. Finding the end zone, however, proved to be a puzzler.
The Fighting Illini racked up 372 yards of offense, but only two of their 12 possessions ended in touchdowns, the second coming on their last possession with less than a minute to play in a 39-19 loss.
No TDs and only a field goal and safety in the first half put the 3-2 Illini in a 23-5 halftime hole.
“if we are going to be a successful football team, we have got to make sure we capitalize in the red zone,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “You have to be able to put points on the board when we get the ball inside the 20-yard line.”
For the most part, Illinois players and coaches viewed their problems as self-inflicted.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase did say some of the pressure brought by Nebraska's defenders made a difference.
“I think they had a couple things that they did well,” Scheelhaase said. “We took some chances on things, but it was something we expected. They're a pretty heavy pressure team.
“They've got some guys that are athletic enough to come off the edge. We just have to do a better job of slowing those up.”
What the Huskers did best was slow the Illinois passing game. Scheelhaase completed just 13 of 26 passes for 135 yards and one interception. Coming into the game, the Illini were ranked 10th nationally with 22 passes of 20 yards or more.
Illinois had only two of those on Saturday, and both came after the Huskers had built a 36-12 fourth-quarter lead. One was a 20-yard completion by Scheelhaase.
The other was a 27-yard strike from backup QB Reilly O'Toole to Josh Ferguson on their final scoring drive.
Both Scheelhaase and Beckman said that some success earlier in the game — specifically the first three drives — would have made a big difference.
“I think if you get things rolling there early in the first quarter, if we come out and get points on the board, then it definitely makes a ballgame,” Scheelhaase said. “It's just something that we've got to do a better job of believing in and executing out there on the field.”
Ferguson was the Illini's most effective weapon. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound sophomore from Naperville, Ill., had 19 carries for 114 yards and one TD. He also was the Illini's leading receiver with eight catches for 82 yards.
Crisper execution of the game plan would have made for a better day for the Illini, Ferguson said, because the Huskers were doing precisely what Illinois expected.
“We knew they were going to play a lot of man, so we had a lot of routes where guys were rubbing off guys to get people open,” Ferguson said. “We knew running across the middle with their type of coverage that something would come open, and we just tried to attack that today.”
As they got closer to the Husker goal line, though, things began to fall apart for the Illini.
“We just had to pick up blitzes in the red zone,” Ferguson said. “The running backs have to do a better job as well as the linemen. We have to be better when it comes to that.”
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• 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: