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Illinois at Nebraska, 11/10/18

Nebraska's Mick Stoltenberg celebrates a stop against Illinois during the second half Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Each of the Davis brothers, it was plain to see, had genuine joy for fellow defensive lineman Mick Stoltenberg, who recorded a sack and then a memorable interception to seal Saturday’s victory over Illinois.

Neither of them, though, could manage to talk about it with a straight face.

“It’s ironic,” 325-pound Carlos said of the captain’s first career interception, on which Stoltenberg leapt up — the exact height is a matter of some dispute — and high-pointed the ball, securing it on his way to the turf.

Elaborated 315-pound Khalil, “Mick can’t jump. I’ve never seen him catch a ball like that before.”

The meaning behind the play, though, was clear. Stoltenberg missed a month this season after yet another knee surgery. When he hit the turf, he landed awkwardly, grabbing at his knee and writhing in pain. But he got up, threw the bones, and jogged to the sideline through a gantlet of teammates and coaches.

“Mick’s a warrior,” coach Scott Frost said. “He’s fighting through some knee issues and he’s good enough to play and contribute. He did a great job today, he got a sack and an interception, I never thought I’d see that, so I’m thrilled for him and it was great to see him get up and run off the field.”

Stoltenberg has played defensive end instead of tackle in three games since returning and is contributing limited but effective snaps. On Illinois’ last offensive snap, quarterback AJ Bush was pressured and flipped the ball up for grabs. Right at the big senior.

“I saw the ball was kind of a duck, I guess,” he said, adding that his knee is OK and he expects to keep playing. “It was a pretty slow ball. I tried to high-point the ball as high as I could jump, which isn’t very high.”

Surmised Carlos Davis, “It was beautiful. He’s a big dude, too, but he high-pointed the ball. If you guys noticed it, he got a foot off the ground.”

Stoltenberg will keep working: The Gretna native is no stranger to dealing with knee problems.

“The joke in (the training room) is that I could do my rehab by myself if I had to, because I’ve been there so much,” he said.

When he first went down, he was scared that something in his surgically repaired knee had given out. After the game, he felt much better about his prospects.

“I’ll throw some ice on it and get it treated and everything, and hopefully it’ll be fine,” he said. “Given the history, I thought something might have popped or something, but it’s all good.”

Long drive seals the deal: It wasn’t the type of drive Nebraska prefers, necessarily, even though it ended with a touchdown.

It was the type of drive that fans of Big Ten football would like to frame and hang in an art museum.

Seventeen plays, 82 yards and 7 minutes, 53 seconds off the clock.

The third-quarter march was the longest of Nebraska’s season, in both number of plays and time elapsed.

The Huskers converted three fourth downs on the drive, twice on fourth-and-3 and again on fourth-and-9.

Coming after NU had intercepted Illinois quarterback AJ Bush to open the third quarter, it was the perfect time for a time-killing, game-sealing drive.

“Getting those three first downs, our percentage is probably up to about 5 percent now,” Frost joked. “It’s good to see. … That was a big drive to keep that one alive and go down there and get some points, and we needed to come out of the halftime break and play well. So that was big for us.”

It was big for Nebraska’s defense, too, which got the opportunity for a little added rest on the sideline.

“Those guys, as you’ve seen, they can score with lightning strikes; fast. But just being able milk some clock and let us get our legs under us, catch our breath, that’s a good thing also,” safety Tre Neal said. “We tell them all the time: We’re going to get stops. We’re going to get y’all the ball and score. And even when they don’t, we tell them not to worry about it.

“But we take pressure off each other. Things happen, we might give up points sometimes, they might turn it over, or get a three-and-out, but we let them know that we’ve got your back. Just be ready.”

Washington, Spielman OK: Frost confirmed after the game that freshman running back Maurice Washington and sophomore receiver JD Spielman should each be available going forward.

Washington started fast, racking up 69 yards on three carries, including a career-best 49-yarder, but didn’t return after the first quarter.

Frost said Washington has been dealing with a “lingering” issue. Spielman, meanwhile, has taken several hard shots over the season and sometimes wears a harness, but Frost has often lauded the diminutive receiver’s toughness.

“JD should be OK,” Frost said. “I think he’s going to be sore, but OK.”

Fast forward: It’s become old hat, but Nebraska took its first possession and scored a touchdown again Saturday.

That marks six straight weeks NU’s got the ball first and scored a touchdown, dating to a Sept. 29 loss to Purdue.

“I think it is tough for teams to get used to what we are doing,” senior running back Devine Ozigbo said. “I think we have so many weapons and so many ball fakes and just a bunch of ball movement that is hard to target. It is hard to understand everything that is going on at once. That confusion, and add in our tempo, I think it is just hard.

“Teams just have to give us a drive so that they can settle in.”

Martinez keeps rolling: Freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez totaled 345 offensive yards and accounted for four touchdowns. He might have played his first turnover-free game, too, had a slightly underthrown ball in the third quarter not bounced off a defensive back’s foot and into another’s arms.

“Adrian’s impressing me every week,” Frost said. "… There’s not going to be anybody better than him once he gets as good as he can be. He’s so fun to be on a team with because he was disappointed today that he didn’t play better.

“I don’t think he’s ever going to be happy until he plays a perfect game, which is never going to happen, so he’s going to be hungry.”

Martinez in his ninth start tied a school record held by Joe Ganz (2008) and Tommy Armstrong (2015) with his sixth 300-plus yard day. His 2,747 offensive yards is best ever by a Husker freshman — Martinez passed Taylor Martinez on Saturday — and ninth-best in school history.

Warner’s nice day: Redshirt freshman receiver Kade Warner had a career-high four catches for 20 yards. Being an Arizona guy and all, he did notice the cold, but he said it was bearable, thanks to his Nebraska-raised brethren.

“That’s the coldest game I’ve played in by far,” he said. “But it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. The guys from Nebraska taught me some tricks, you know, latex gloves under the gloves, double-shirt, all those tricks that I had never heard of.”

Contact the writer at pgabriel@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.

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Sports writer

Parker joined the Journal Star as the University of Nebraska football beat writer in August 2017. He previously covered Montana State athletics for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 2012.

Husker basketball reporter

A Ravenna native, Chris covers the University of Nebraska men's basketball team and assists with football coverage. He spent nearly 10 years covering sports at the Kearney Hub and nearly four years at the Springfield News-Leader in Springfield, Mo.

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