By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
Nebraska’s top-notch HuskerVision staff included Milt Tenopir in the famed Tunnel Walk. They also made a special video tribute to Tenopir that 90,374 fans at Memorial Stadium saw in the first quarter.
Following that video, the Cornhusker Marching Band appropriately played “There Is No Place Like Nebraska.”
The Nebraska sports information staff saved a seat in the press box for Tenopir, who watched games from that spot long after his retirement from the Nebraska coaching staff in 2002.
If that wasn’t enough to commemorate Tenopir, the former Husker offensive line coach who died Monday after a long battle with leukemia, well, consider what No. 15 Nebraska did Saturday in pulling away from Illinois for a 31-16 victory.
With three current or former walk-ons playing in the trenches, Nebraska muscled its way through a mammoth 18-play drive that included 15 rushing plays, ate 10 minutes 42 seconds off the game clock, lasted more than 30 minutes in real time and resulted in the go-ahead touchdown.
Certainly, that would make Uncle Milt proud.
“I mean, we kind of just started playing our game and maybe wore on them a little bit,” said senior guard Sam Hahn, among those aforementioned walk-ons. “We got to our technique and finished our blocks better than we had all game.”
Senior running back Terrell Newby, who carried the ball the final five plays of that drive, scored on a 3-yard run for a 17-16 lead.
Nebraska’s defense forced a three-and-out, and also forced a gassed Illinois defense back onto the field.
“I think we wore on them,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “That was one thing, we kept staying with it.”
Nebraska drove 59 yard in 11 plays and milked another 5:49 off the clock en route to another touchdown for a 24-16 lead. The Huskers forced a punt, and Newby, on a newly-designed stretch play, dashed 63 yards on Nebraska’s longest play from scrimmage this season for a touchdown to make the final score look more comfortable than this game really was.
“The biggest part is the mental competitiveness that I’m most pleased with,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “Keep your poise, keep playing, even though it wasn’t very pretty, and then make some plays to win the game.”
Nebraska (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) enters a much-welcome bye week with a laundry list of injured players.
Tight end Cethan Carter left Saturday’s game with an elbow injury, and Riley wasn’t certain how long the injury would sideline the senior. Another senior, wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp, was sent to the hospital for precautionary measures after taking a hard hit to his back, but Riley had no further details.
Up front, Hahn has been starting all season for Jerald Foster, who suffered a season-ending injury in fall camp. Senioor Corey Whitaker started in place of Tanner Farmer, out with an ankle sprain at guard, and sophomore walk-on Cole Conrad, a Fremont native, came in during the first quarter for right tackle David Knevel, who coaches felt was struggling with a nagging ankle injury. Conrad played the rest of the game.
“We’ve been proud of the next guy up,” said Langsdorf, who also starts former walk-on Dylan Utter at center. “Cole went in there and played very well. Cole’s been a guard and a tackle, and he’s just worked and he doesn’t open his mouth and he just goes in there and plays.
“I thought he played well. I thought our guards got beat at times and then late in the game took it over. That fourth quarter was big for them.”
“I thought he had a good feel,” Langsdorf said. “He didn’t try to rush things. He had good patience. When he hit it, he hit it hard, and those were some big runs. They were hard runs early.
“It was going to be those ones where we were going to get 2-3 yards and keep going at it. By the end of the fourth, we were getting 5-6 yards a carry.”
Newby’s 63-yard touchdown run came on a stretch play that caught Illinois off-guard.
“It was kind of a spread formation that we hit them on that was a little bit of a curveball that they hadn’t seen,” Langsdorf said. “We’d been running that out of a different formation and decided to try to spread it and got a good crease on it.”
Newby flashed some speed in breaking away from Illini defenders on the run.
“They told us toward the end of the first half we were going to be running it, so we drew it up at halftime, kind of gave Tommy (Armstrong) the ability to read, gave him a pull option," Newby said. "He made a great read on that long touchdown run and I was able to read my blocks and finish the run.”
Tommy Armstrong Jr. finished 16-of-23 passing for 220 yards and, although he needed to take evasive action on a couple of occasions, wasn’t sacked.
That’s admirable for an offensive line being pieced together against a touted Illinois defensive line that entered the game averaging 4.33 sacks per game – tops in the nation.
“They were a good bunch. They were really good against the pass pro,” Hahn said of Illinois. “We were able to get some movement on them late like we talked about in the fourth quarter. They were a good D-Line, I thought.”
Nebraska outscored Illinois 21-0 in the fourth quarter, and the Huskers have now outscored foes 78-6 in the fourth quarter this season.
That’s something else that would put a smile on the face of Tenopir, who coached 29 seasons at Nebraska.
“We definitely take pride in that, in finishing games,” Hahn said. “Sometimes that means it’s taking you a while to get going and you’re not taking advantage of your opportunities right away, but we definitely take pride finishing like that in the fourth quarter.”
Reach Brian at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.