The skies were gray, the air was brisk and the wind was blowing for a mid-day kickoff.
If that’s not Big Ten Conference enough for you, than how about a team playing three linebackers at once?
“We knew coming into the game it was the type of football game that linebackers should love,” Nebraska linebacker Michael Rose said. “Downhill, guard-pulling, just knock the crap out of somebody.”
With the varied spread offenses of today’s game, it’s not often Nebraska uses its base defense of three linebackers.
Saturday was one of those days. Not only that, the Huskers counted on two redshirt freshmen to fill voids.
Rose started at WILL linebacker, in place of injured Zaire Anderson, and Jared Afalava started at BUCK linebacker, a position that, well, nobody normally starts, because it’s rarely used.
Both responded well in their first career starts. Rose had a team-best 11 tackles in Nebraska’s 39-19 victory against Illinois, and Afalava had eight tackles, including a sack and another tackle for loss.
“The D-line gave great effort up front, ate up blocks and even made plays by themselves, and we were getting great fit in from the secondary,” Rose said. “It was a great overall day for the defense. We’ll find things we did wrong and improve on them for next week.”
Defensive tackle Aaron Curry, another redshirt freshman, also made his first career start, as Nebraska continues to rotate young defenders in its starting lineup. Nebraska has also used true freshman linebackers Nate Gerry and Josh Banderas in starting roles this season.
Afalava was pegged as Nebraska’s top BUCK linebacker in fall camp before being slowed by injury. Coaches used the bye week to bring Afalava back up to speed on the position.
“He’s a physical, good BUCK,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “He’s a good outside backer and it’s a good role for him.
“The other thing, it helps us spread out some of the responsibility. Nate doesn't have to know base, nickel and dime. He can just worry about nickel and let Jared worry about base. I think there was some positive with that, with as many young guys as we have and not putting too much on each guy.”
Afalava rebounded from a couple of rough plays early, and received an earful on the sideline during a first-half timeout. He responded immediately with an emphatic tackle for loss on Illinois running back Donovonn Young.
Papuchis said that play had more to do with the fact Afalava was unblocked than it did with what was said during the timeout.
“I think sometimes there’s too much made of cause and effect on those things,” Papuchis said. “I don’t know if that (tackle) was the direct result of the fact he was being corrected on the sideline or not.”
With Anderson gimpy in practice with an ankle sprain last week, coaches turned to Rose, who’s also played at MIKE linebacker in a rotation with David Santos, who started Saturday, and Banderas.
“It’s fun being out there when you can physically dominate an opponent like that, and I believe that’s what we did,” Rose said. “We’re going to build on that, because we’re going to need that for the rest of these Big Ten games.”
The linebacker lineup from Saturday, though, won’t necessarily stay the same. It’s been fluid through five games, and all indications are, it will remain as such.
“I don’t think anyone’s earned the right to just grab the starting spot and be the guy exclusively,” Papuchis said. “Until someone just owns the position, I think you just keep rolling guys through and see who ends up coming out with it in the end.”
Nebraska forced two turnovers and stiffened at key moments, holding Illinois scoreless three times after the Illini entered Nebraska territory; the Huskers recovered a fumble and forced two incomplete passes.
“I thought our guys played really hard,” Papuchis said, noting he was disappointed with Illinois’ final touchdown drive. “But I thought our guys played really well overall. We got some takeaways, did some good things, bowed up when we had to.”