Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Defense Shines Bright in Team Win

By Brian Rosenthal

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Tanner Lee had already made his way toward the visitors’ locker room when TV cameras wanted the Nebraska junior quarterback back at midfield for a postgame interview.

As Lee retreated, he smiled and either shook hands or fist-bumped a few members of Nebraska’s defense as they jogged toward the northwest corner of Memorial Stadium.

He lauded their performance and thanked them for their role in Nebraska’s 28-6 victory over Illinois on Friday night that marked another sign of progress for the Blackshirts.

“It’s just an all-around team victory,” Lee said. “That’s how you want it to be done. It’s what you want from a team.”

Lee did his part by going 17-of-24 passing for 246 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions. Junior receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. caught a career-high eight passes for 96 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown, and senior receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El hauled in a 45-yard touchdown reception, the second-longest of his career.

On the ground, running back Devine Ozigbo ran 18 times for 106 yards, as Nebraska (3-2, 2-0 Big Ten) mounted touchdown drives of 88, 75, 89 and 93 yards, and for the first time since Sept. 12, 2009, scored touchdowns the first three times it touched the ball.

But the bigger story Friday night was a third straight dominating performance by the defense, which held Illinois (2-2, 0-1) to 199 total yards, marking the second straight game Nebraska’s opponent has failed to crack 200 yards against the Blackshirts.

“They’re tough,” Lee said. “I’m glad we don’t have to against them, because they show so many different looks. The guys can fly around. It was good to see them play well and only give up six.”

That’s the fewest points the Huskers have allowed since 2011, when Nebraska defeated Michigan State 24-3. On the road, it’s the fewest allowed since a 2006 victory at Kansas State, 21-3.

This is the first time the Blackshirts have limited three straight opponents to fewer than 250 yards since a three-game stretch to open the 2003 season against Oklahoma State, Utah State and Penn State.

“Any time we’re doing stuff like that, it’s going to make for a good game,” senior linebacker Chris Weber said. “We kept the points down tonight.”

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco yelled out Weber’s name, and teammates responded with cheers during a loud, spirited postgame locker room gathering of Blackshirts.

“We do some quirky things at the end of the game and the end of the work week,” Diaco said with a smile. “It’s a cultural, Blackshirt defensive thing.”

He wouldn’t go into further detail, but suffice it say the mini celebration had something to do with Weber’s team-leading nine tackles, including his first career sack. He also collected his first career interception when he caught a Hail Mary pass that fell 6 yards short of the end zone to end the first half.

Nebraska faced a mobile quarterback in Chayce Couch but held him to 34 rushing yards. He gained 71, but the Huskers had a season-high five sacks to deflate his total.

“You know, he got going early on in the game, but for the most part, I thought we kept him bottled up,” Weber said. “We made him bring the ball down when he was in the pocket there at the end, and we got some sacks.”

The biggest, in terms of yardage, came from defensive lineman Carlos Davis, who sacked Crouch for a loss of 12 yards.

Davis, a sophomore, said his confidence continues to grow the more he watches film, and the longer he stays in games and gets a feel for opponents.

“I never came off the field,” Davis said. “I started noticing everything – little stuff with the offensive line. I had seen it before, so it started to click for me.

“I can start playing the game. I can start talking a little mess if I need to get inside the O-Lineman’s head, just messing with them. I can go all out.”

Same could be said of redshirted freshman Ben Stille, who had a sack among his team-leading three tackles for loss, as Nebraska collected a season-best 10 tackles for loss. Stille also forced a fumble.

“Isn’t that fun?” Diaco said of younger players contributing. “Sed King, Ben Stille, guys out there, you have young D-Linemen in their mixing it up – Deantre (Thomas) and the Davis twins. The corners did a nice job. Eric Lee had a couple of PIs but he’s on body and he’s competing. All we want them to do is compete, and they did a nice job.”

The more, the merrier, especially as Nebraska turns to a more challenging part of its Big Ten schedule, with back-to-back home games against Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Players are eager, and judging by the some 10,000 red-clad folks from the announced crowd of 43,058, Nebraska fans are, too. They began a loud "Go Big Red!" chant that echoed throughout the stadium as Nebraska's offense knelt out a second straight victory.

Another team victory, one predicated on a young, molding roster that's making strides, especially on defense. 

“Like I’ve been saying, it’s huge watching our depth just continue to develop,” junior defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg said. “Down the road of Big Ten season, you want to get as many hats in there as you can, and watching someone as young as (Stille) and with as much potential as him showing some flashes right away is really exciting.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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