Illinois vs. Nebraska, 10/1

Nebraska defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun (91) sacks Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt (12) in first-quarter action at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016.

By the end of Saturday night, residents in the state of Nebraska had probably heard the numbers repeated so often that they knew them as well as their garage door codes.

78-6. It's the most popular Nebraska stat from this football weekend. It's the Huskers' fourth-quarter dominance in scoring through five games.

What about the first three quarters? Nebraska holds the edge, but it's by the much closer count of 107-82.

In the second quarter, in fact, the Huskers are actually being outscored 49-37.

For a team that is 5-0, now ranked 12th in the country and one of just 16 undefeated teams left in the FBS, that 78-6 stat is worth the attention it is receiving given how last year unfolded.

This will lead many laypeople to two quick conclusions: 1) The coaching staff is making strong in-game adjustments. 2) The team must be well-conditioned.

"I don't know if that's part of it, but it could be," Husker coach Mike Riley said of that second point. "I think the biggest part is the mental competitiveness. Keep your poise, keep playing ..."

As senior safety and team captain Nate Gerry said after Nebraska's 31-16 win against Illinois, "finishing" was something this team stressed all offseason.

"But we have got to put together a full game if we want to be an elite defensive group."

Saturday, Illinois had 252 yards of offense on just 34 plays in the first three quarters — an average of 7.4 yards per play. In the fourth quarter, the Illini ran 10 plays and picked up just 18 more yards.

Riley appreciated that turnaround.

"The plays we had to make in the fourth quarter were made," he said. "We had some really good downfield knock-away balls."

He mentioned a play by Aaron Williams, maybe the biggest Husker defensive play of the day, in which he broke up a deep pass to force a punt right after Nebraska took a 17-16 lead.

That's the kind of play that's the difference between a week of sunshine and thunderstorms in this state.

But in describing his team's play up until the fourth quarter, Riley also said, "It didn't look like much up until then."

Players seemed to agree. They'll enjoy this bye week. They should. For just the sixth time since 2000, Nebraska is undefeated after five games.

But as the pursuit of winning the Big Ten West continues, the Huskers know they will have to be crisper earlier.

To the Yays and Nays.

Yay: To offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf for not overthinking it on that 18-play drive that took 10:42 off the clock.

Let him explain.

"Sometimes you get those faster drives and you just kind of rattle them off," he said. "When you get the longer ones, and you've got the quarter break, there's a lot more thinking involved and that's not always a good thing. You can overthink some stuff.

"I like the fact that we're controlling the clock and giving the defense some rest. It's a great thing to have, don't get me wrong. But you can start getting some extra thoughts in your head on the long ones."

On a drive where the longest play was a 10-yard completion to De'Mornay Pierson-El, patience was rewarded.

Nay: Take it from senior defensive end Ross Dzuris. "The first half was just really poor tackling," he said.

Some bad angles, for starters. Some bad wrapping up, for seconds.

Watch the 31-yard touchdown run by Illinois' Kendrick Foster in the second quarter and you'll see those bad angles, and two missed tackles that made it entirely too easy.

Yay: Third-down offense. Nebraska was 10-of-14 on the money down. That's really, really good.

The Huskers are now fifth in the country in third-down conversions at 53 percent, having succeeded on 35 of 66.

Nebraska's third-down defense isn't half bad, either. NU is 27th nationally, allowing teams to convert at just a 30.8 percent clip.

Nay: Nebraska's linebackers, viewed as the strength of this defense heading into the season, had as rough a first half as anyone.

The missed tackles, as defensive coordinator Mark Banker said, were "across the board." But that linebacker unit is a group of veteran players Nebraska needs to take its game to another level after the bye.

Yay: To an offensive line that stayed persistent, even while struggling for three quarters against Illinois' standout D-ends, and finally pushed the wall down to help Terrell Newby explode in the fourth quarter.

"They were hard runs early — the kind you're going to get 2 and 3 yards," Langsdorf said. "Then you keep going on it and by the end of the fourth, we were getting 5 and 6 yards a carry." Then, boom, 63.

To Pierson El. Let's rip off the "Dos Equis' line. He doesn't always return punts but when he does ... He now has 11 in his career of more than 25 yards.

To Freedom Akinmoladun arriving to the quarterback with bad intentions.

To Nebraska only picking up three penalties.

To somehow not giving up a sack against a team that averaged 4.3 per game.

To Shamus McKnight, Nebraska's senior associate communications director, who was still digging Sunday to find the last Husker drive that lasted longer than 10:42. He's now made it back as far as 1990 without finding one.

Nay: Minus-2 in turnovers. Tommy Armstrong's pick before the half gave the Illini even more belief. Mikale Wilbon's fumble inside the Illinois 15-yard line made you wonder if it was going to be one of those days for the Huskers.

Quote for the road: "Don't be sad because it's over. Smile because it happened." — Vin Scully, calling his final inning

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.


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