Tanner throws 3 TDs, Nebraska rolls past Illinois 28-6
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — When Nebraska ended its nonconference schedule with a loss to Northern Illinois, it didn’t just drop the Cornhuskers to 1-2. It also served as an early turning point in the season and cost athletic director Shawn Eichorst his job.
Life in the Big Ten has been much easier.
Last week, the Cornhuskers pulled out a back-and-forth victory against Rutgers. But on Friday, they were in total control.
Entering the matchup, Tanner Lee led the FBS with nine interceptions and was held to 109 yards by the Scarlet Knights. Against Illinois, he threw for 246 yards and three touchdowns, helping lead Nebraska to a 28-6 win.
“I think it’s coaching,” Lee said. “The looks we were expecting the looks we got, the plays we were running were things we practiced all week at practice. . I’m glad that we got into a rhythm there. We just looked good.”
The Cornhuskers (3-2, 2-0) led wire to wire, scoring on their first possession, a quick 88-yard drive capped by a 45-yard touchdown pass from Lee to De’Mornay Pierson-El, and was never under pressure.
Pierson-El finished the night with four receptions for 94 yards and one score. Stanley Morgan Jr. also had a big night with a career-high eight receptions for 96 yards and a score.
“I think (Lee) passed well,” Morgan Jr. said. “He did an excellent job, just finding open receivers and getting the ball to us.”
Morgan Jr’s strong outing also moved him up the list of Cornhusker greats. He now has 84 catches and 1,152 receiving yards which are ranked 12th and 16th, respectively, in school history.
Led by running back Devine Ozigbo, Nebraska also dominated Illinois on the ground. Ozigbo had 106 yards on 18 carries. His 15-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was his first score of the season.
Illinois (2-2, 0-1) continued to struggle behind run-first quarterback Chayce Crouch. He made several plays with his legs, including an impressive 19-yard tackle-breaking scamper just before the half, but he threw for only 99 yards. Crouch has yet to eclipse 150 passing yards this season.
The Illini struggles showed after they kicked a field goal to cut the deficit to 21-6 midway through the third quarter. Patrick Nelson forced an Ozigbo fumble that was recovered by Stanley Green on the Nebraska 28. But the team lost 14 yards in three plays and was forced to punt.
“Man, I thought the defense rose up all day long,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “Our ability to keep them out of the end zone was beautiful.”
The Illini have now lost 15 of their last 17 games following a bye week.
“We didn’t get anything going tonight,” coach Lovie Smith said. “Can’t talk about anyone playing well. We need a better game plan, and we need to play better. Simple as that.”
Nebraska: After an upset loss to Northern Illinois and athletic director Shawn Eichorst getting fired, the Cornhuskers appear to have found some stability. Nebraska has picked up two conference wins and gained momentum heading into next week’s home matchup with No. 10 Wisconsin. With a good outing against the Badgers, Riley could show that the program hasn’t taken a step back from its 9-4 season a year ago.
Illinois: The Illini are ranked last in the Big Ten in total offense and against the Cornhuskers it was clear why. Crouch threw inaccurate passes throughout the game, and showed limited ability to get the ball down field. A week after playing backup quarterback Jeff George Jr. in the second half against South Florida, Smith let Crouch play out the game. But heading into next week, he may reevaluate who starts under center.
LEADING WITH HIS ARM
Lee came into the game with nine interceptions, the most in FBS. But against the young Illini secondary - they start a senior, a sophomore and two freshmen - he was efficient and effective.
Lee was 17 of 24 and no interceptions. He hit wide-open targets but also made some throws up narrow seams in the Illinois defense and into tight spots over the middle.
The only sign of the interception-prone Lee came late in the third quarter, throwing a deep ball right at Illinois linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips. Intended receiver Tyler Hoppes managed to knock the ball out of Phillips’ hands.
On Nebraska’s third offensive play of the game, defensive back Bennett Williams was ejected for targeting after a big hit on Hoppes. Williams is the second Illini to be thrown out of a game this season. Linebacker Tre Watson received a targeting penalty in Week Two against Western Kentucky.
Running back Kendrick Foster was named the Week One starter for the Illini, but since being replaced by freshman Mike Epstein, he has struggled to make plays. In the loss to Nebraska, Foster muffed two kickoff returns and only carried the ball one time for a loss of 5 yards. Last year, Foster led the team with 720 yards and seven touchdowns. This season, has totaled 21 yards and hasn’t scored.
Nebraska: The Cornhuskers are back at home to face No. 10 Wisconsin, 3-0, next Saturday.
Illinois: The Illini play at Iowa next Saturday.