Brenden Jaimes

NebrasThe status of left tackle Brenden Jaimes remained unclear all week until the junior — who had started 15 straight games at the position and 24 overall — trotted out fully suited for warmups at Memorial Stadium.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Trent Hixson grinned, with the left arm of his position coach draped over him. Cameron Jurgens and Matt Farniok strode off the field together, drenched in sweat and covered in smiles.

Nebraska managed to keep its same starting five on the offensive line yet again. And in yet another up-and-down performance from a young group of blockers, the unit eventually settled in to do its part in a 42-38 win over Illinois on Saturday.

The status of left tackle Brenden Jaimes remained unclear all week until the junior — who had started 15 straight games at the position and 24 overall — trotted out fully suited for warmups at Memorial Stadium. But while he played throughout the evening, the line continued to flash growing pains that come with leaning on a unit featuring three juniors, a sophomore and redshirt freshman center.

There were early positive moments, to be sure. The big men moved Illinois’ entire defensive line to the left as Maurice Washington burst right for a 41-yard run on NU’s third drive. Quarterback Adrian Martinez ran more draws than in any contest this season, rushing for a season-best 118 yards on 18 carries overall.

Dedrick Mills, meanwhile, found just enough space to churn out 3 yards on a fourth-and-2 in the first quarter from the Illinois 8 yard-line that led to the Huskers’ first touchdown two plays later to make it 14-7. The line settled in to pave the way for 101 rushing yards in the third quarter alone, coming at a rate of 5.9 yards per carry.

Nebraska ran for 363 (5.7 average) overall. Senior running back Wyatt Mazour said it’s a far cry from the opener against South Alabama, when NU produced 98 ground yards.

“They’ve improved a lot,” Mazour said of the line. “They’re kind of taking it upon themselves to perform better. That first game there were a lot of questions. We put up how many rushing yards today?”

Just as encouraging for the front line: just two sacks allowed against a tenacious Illini unit that had 12 after three games (tied for ninth nationally).

Still, mistakes also persisted like the light rain that hung over western Illinois for much of the day. Washington absorbed negative yardage on multiple handoffs in the first half, including a minus-8 result in the opening quarter that led to a punt. The snaps of the center Jurgens — far more consistent the past two weeks after an erratic debut in the opener — were wayward at times again under the lights.

A whiplash possession right before halftime continued to illustrate the search for consistency. The line opened lanes for Martinez on designed draws of 12 and 2 yards on third downs. But a 20-yard Dedrick Mills run was nullified by a Jaimes holding penalty that eventually killed the drive.

Martinez at times had a pocket to settle into, but was also forced to roll out to avoid pressure. He took his first sack on the brief opening drive of the third quarter, when his pocket collapsed on third-and-7.

For all its inconsistencies, the offensive line has had the same left-to-right starters of Jaimes, Hixson, Jurgens, Boe Wilson and Farniok all four games this season. NU also had its same starting five for its final eight games last year, though it had three different starting combinations overall. By comparison, the injury-riddled 2017 group had different starting lineups five times.

These Huskers have found a rhythm to begin Big Ten play. How much they can come together in the next few weeks, players agreed, may sway how fun the coming weeks will be in a ground-and-pound league.

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