CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Tanner Lee waited, waited, double-clutched with the ball, then waited some more.
That moment, when his feet get a bit out of rhythm and he’s deep in his progression and looking for a third-down answer, is when mistakes have flowed from Nebraska’s starting quarterback through his first four games this fall.
Not in the first half Friday against Illinois.
Instead, De’Mornay Pierson-El made all that waiting pay off, coming open over the middle, hauling in a slant pass and racing 45 yards to the end zone.
Just the start the Huskers were looking for. Just the kind of night the offense has been waiting — and waiting and waiting — for.
The Huskers rolled up 252 yards on their first three drives, finishing with 411 overall, and rolled to a 28-6 victory to improve to 3-2 overall and 2-0 in Big Ten play.
"I really believe it was a balanced football game, offense and defense. ... I thought it was probably overall the most balanced game we've had," NU coach Mike Riley said. "And if you put it together where you talk about rushing production and passing efficiency ... "
The first three times the Huskers had the ball, they marched 88 yards, 75, then 89 for touchdowns.
Lee completed 10 straight passes in that span and 11-of-13 in the first half for 167 yards and a pair of scores. The last came 1 minute, 23 seconds before halftime on play-action to the left and bootleg right. Senior tight end Tyler Hoppes came wide-open for his first career touchdown, a 6-yard reception.
Lee finished 17-of-24 for 246 yards and three touchdowns. And no interceptions.
"It's like I said, we don't need to pass the ball more," Riley said. "We just needed to pass more efficiently. I thought the passing lanes were created well with play-action and I would say a lot of his incompletions were probably drops. ... That's a nice-looking picture."
Added running back Mikale Wilbon: "It's very important (for Lee). The thing I saw that I liked, one play where I noticed he grew a lot, he just threw the ball away. I was, like, 'Oh, my God, did he really just do that?' I really appreciate that and you can just see the growth with him."
Running back Devine Ozigbo capped the second drive with a 15-yard scoring run on which he found room around the right edge, then muscled through a pair of high tackle attempts inside the 5-yard line.
Wilbon and Ozigbo combined to churn out 166 yards on 31 carries. Wilbon ran well early in the game and Ozigbo helped close out the Illini — much like he did against Rutgers last weekend — with 13 carries for 72 yards in the fourth quarter alone.
Lee had time to throw throughout the first half and, with top receiver Stanley Morgan (neck) back after a one-game absence, the Husker receivers consistently created the separation that's been lacking much of the opening month. Morgan finished with eight catches for 96 yards and a touchdown, while Pierson-El added four for 94 yards and a score of his own.
"It's good to have Stan," Riley said. "I'm not sure he felt perfect, but he played hard. When you miss as much time as he has, that could have been the result of some uncharacteristic drops."
The Huskers also kept Lee clean. In the first half, Illinois recorded no sacks and no hurries from its young front, which includes a pair of freshman defensive ends.
It didn’t go as smoothly to open the second half. Lee was stripped — NU recovered the ball — on the first play of the third quarter, then was hurried again on third down, resulting in the Huskers’ first punt of the night.
The Illini started at their 47 and moved all the way to the NU 7, but stalled there. Their two scoring drives, both field goals, chewed up 14:35 and 27 plays combined to muster 110 yards.
"It was really fun to be a part of some moments of low-red-zone defense and bowing their backs and getting a couple of stops," NU defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said.
Illinois managed just 89 yards on six other drives.
"I think we made them work," linebacker Dedrick Young said. "We want to make them drive long, not give them explosive plays."
It's the third consecutive week the Blackshirts have allowed 213 total yards or less. They've allowed just two touchdowns in the past 14 quarters.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Ben Stille finished with three of Nebraska's 10 tackles for loss, including a sack. Linebacker Chris Weber collected two TFLs and a sack, while sophomore brothers Carlos and Khalil Davis each also had sacks.
Illinois quarterback Chayce Crouch rushed for 36 yards in the first quarter but netted just 1 on 10 carries the rest of the way.
"We've been playing good football," Weber said. "We kept the points down, kept the yardage down, limited the big plays, which is something we've been harping on. Those drives in the first half are a perfect example. ... That's exactly what we have to do in Big Ten play."
The Huskers put the game out of reach with a 14-play, 93-yard march spanning the third and fourth quarters. Hoppes saved an interception with a break-up against Del’Shawn Phillips, Wilbon made an excellent jump cut to convert a fourth-and-1 at the UI 29 despite pressure up the middle, and Morgan made up for a bad drop with a bruising stiff-arm on a 23-yard touchdown catch-and-run.
NU’s third scoring drive was perhaps its smoothest possession of the season. Lee made several good throws, JD Spielman picked up 4 yards on a jet sweep and then 8 more on a double-reverse. Lee threw a good ball over the middle to Morgan for 18 yards, and Pierson-El made a man miss to turn a hitch pass into a 24-yard gain. The next play, Wilbon rumbled for 15 yards, setting up Lee’s bootleg to Hoppes.
After that, NU salted the game away on the ground.
"I really liked that," Riley said. "They were blitzing like crazy and they stuffed us on a series before. We found a couple of runs we could use there and it was nice to see us running to win the game."
One negative for the Huskers: They put the ball on the ground four times. Lee and Morgan had fumbles recovered by teammates, while Pierson-El got away with a bad decision to field a fourth-quarter punt under duress. Ozigbo was not so lucky, as his third-quarter fumble set up Illinois at the NU 32. That drive lost 14 yards and ended in a punt, though, rendering NU's lone turnover harmless.
"I thought the defense rose up all day long," Riley said. "Illinois had some nice-looking drives, nice-looking plays, but our ability to keep them out of the end zone was really good for us."
The Huskers have now opened Big Ten play with consecutive teams considered to be at the bottom of the league. The next two weeks, they'll host a pair of teams considered to be near the top, beginning with a night game against No. 10 Wisconsin next Saturday.
"I'm not going to be the one that comes out and says something crazy," left guard Jerald Foster said. "I'm going to tell you this: Wisconsin's always been on my target list. I really, really would love to have a win against this team."