CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Mikale Wilbon saw the stacked box and knew in the back of his mind what would likely happen next.
The Nebraska junior running back was about to take a handoff on fourth-and-1 on the first play of the fourth quarter Friday.
The Huskers led 21-6 and were at the Illinois 29-yard line. It wasn’t exactly a make-or-break moment, but perhaps a chance to break the Illini's will.
As he got the ball, he had no time to think because of pressure up the middle. He jump-cut to his left, sprinted outside and fell forward for a first down.
Three plays later, Stanley Morgan hauled in a 23-yard touchdown pass from Tanner Lee.
“Really, it was an inside-zone and it’s for us to hit inside, but it was clogged up and I saw air outside, so I just hit that,” said Wilbon, who finished with 60 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. “Coach (Reggie Davis) always tells us to improvise, because you never know where it’s going to hit at. Look at it, make one read, be decisive and go.”
Head coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf were also decisive in putting the offense back on the field.
The quarter change gave the Huskers the wind for the final frame, meaning they were well within Drew Brown’s range, but they opted against a field-goal attempt.
“Confidence,” Riley said simply of his rationale for going for it.
Key for Blackshirts: For an idea of how defensive coordinator Bob Diaco wants his defense to play, look no further than the two drives that ended in field goals for Illinois.
They combined to cover 110 yards over 27 plays, just about 4 yards per snap, and took more than 14 minutes off the clock. Four of the hosts’ five third-down conversions came on those two marches. However, both stalled out — one at the NU 8 and the other at the 7.
“Red zone is a huge emphasis and we practice that daily,” linebacker Dedrick Young said. “It’s just what we want our defense to be about.”
Lightning and thunder: With running back Tre Bryant missing his third straight game because of a knee injury, the Huskers turned to a heavy dose of Mikale Wilbon and Ozigbo.
Wilbon got most of his 13 carries in the first half. Ozigbo had 106 yards on 18 carries.
“I started the game and then (Devine) finished the game great,” Wilbon said. “That’s how we want it. We’re a 1-2 punch. Lightning and thunder, man.”
Bryant still leads the team in rushing with 299 yards, and his return, whenever that is, will give the Huskers a potent three-headed attack.
Langsdorf didn’t want to speculate how Nebraska will use its running backs going forward.
“We’ll wait and see,” Langsdorf said. “We haven’t crossed that issue yet, and hopefully we’ll get him back as soon as we can. Once we get him back and practicing, then we’ll go from there.”
Weber’s first career interception: Chris Weber was happy to end a threat with an interception and didn’t mind the kidding he got for padding his stats.
But was the senior linebacker’s interception on Illinois’ Hail Mary to end the first half completely legit?
“I told the guys in the locker room, I’m glad they didn’t review it, because it was one of those,” Weber said. “I looked up and the ref was pointing that it was my ball, so I was just like, all right.”
No matter now, the interception will go down as the first of Weber’s career, part of a night that saw him log nine tackles and a sack two seasons after piling up 17 tackles here.
“I like playing here, I can say that,” Weber said.
Hoppes gets first TD: It wasn’t his longest catch of the game, but Tyler Hoppes will always remember his first touchdown as a Husker.
It came in the second quarter, when the Lincoln Southwest grad rolled into the flat, caught a pass from Lee and reached the end zone on a 6-yard score.
“It was amazing,” said Hoppes, who finished with 27 yards on two catches. “That’s what I dreamed about when I came here. Seeing that when I’m growing up, too, feels good to get in there.”
Maybe just as big was Hoppes’ play as a defender in the third quarter.
Lee lofted a pass Hoppes’ way, but an Illinois defender got his hands on the ball in front of Hoppes, who then swiped at the ball, causing it to hit the ground.
Possession time evened out: The Illini controlled the ball, if not the scoreboard, in the first quarter. They had it for 11:08 but trailed 7-0 because the Huskers marched down the field in eight plays on their lone first-quarter possession.
From there out, though, NU racked up a 28:00-17:00 advantage.
“(Imposing your will) is a process and it’s a goal in each ballgame,” Riley said.