Nebraska used an outstanding defensive performance to dominate field position and time of possession in a 20-7 Big Ten road victory at Illinois on Friday night.
The Huskers improved to 3-3 on the season, while Illinois slipped to 2-4.
The Blackshirts held Illinois to just 21 rushing yards on 19 carries in the game, marking the fifth time in six games this season that the Nebraska defense has held an opponent to fewer than 60 rushing yards.
Nebraska finished with 312 total yards compared to 310 for Illinois.. The Huskers dominated the ground game, 158-21, led by 82 yards and a touchdown from quarterback Heinrich Haarberg. Anthony Grant added 56 yards and a score of his on 20 carries, while Emmitt Johnson pitched in 29 yards on seven totes.
Haarberg added 154 yards on 12-of-24 passing with one fourth-quarter interception. Tight end Thomas Fidone hauled in three catches for 42 yards, while Billy Kemp contributed three receptions of his own for 26 yards. Marcus Washington added a 39-yard catch on the game's opening drive before leaving with an injury.
Quarterback Luke Altmyer led a one-dimensional Illinois offense with 289 yards on 27-of-49 passing. He connected with Pat Bryant on the Illini's lone touchdown of the night in the second quarter. Bryant led all receivers with 76 yards, while teammate Isaiah Williams added a game-high eight receptions for 57 yards.
While Illinois managed 310 yards in the game, 74 came on the opening drive, which ended with a monumental goal-line stand by the Blackshirts that set the tone for the rest of the game. The Husker defenders turned away Illinois on both 3rd and 4th down from inside the 1-yard-line to end a 14-play Fighting Illini drive.
Haarberg and the Husker offense then took over, marching 86 yards on 11 plays while consuming 6:47. The drive ended with a 31-yard Tristan Alvano field goal to give the Big Red a 3-0 lead.
The Blackshirts held Illinois to just 16 total yards on its next two possessions, before the Husker offense mounted another successful march, covering 79 yards in 14 plays while consuming 6:38. Anthony Grant put the exclamation point on the drive with his one-yard touchdown plunge to give Nebraska a 10-0 with 6:47 remaining in the first half.
The Huskers finished with a 37:07-22-:53 edge in time of possession.
Nebraska then took advantage of the biggest Illinois mistake of the night on the ensuing kickoff. Alvano's short kick against the wind bounced off an Illini upback and was recovered by Husker special teamer Grant Tagge. One play later, Haarberg extended Nebraska's lead to 17-0 with his 25-yard run to paydirt.
The Blackshirts then forced another three-and-out and gave possession back to the offense with 4:52 left in the half. The offense hoped to stretch the lead even further, but could not click.
Illinois then put together its only successful drive of the night, covering 76 yards in just five plays to cut the Husker lead to 17-7.
Illinois actually had a chance to cut the lead more at the end of the half, but a 55-yard field goal attempt came up short.
The second half was dominated by the defenses and marred by offensive miscues by both teams. The Huskers got the only points of the half for either team midway through the third quarter on a 32-yard Alvano field goal.
Alvano's second field goal of the night was set up by Blackshirts Phalen Sanford and Tommi Hill. Sanford, who made the start on defense, unleashed a ball-jarring hit on Illinois receiver Griffin Moore. The loose ball popped into the air and fell into the hands of hill, setting up the offense at the Illini 21.
The offense moved the ball eight yards to set up the field goal that gave Nebraska a 20-7 lead with 8:16 remaining in the third.
The Blackshirts then forced another three-and-out and got a blocked punt from Blaise Gunnerson to set the offense up at the Illinois 15. However, the offense was unable to capitalize and a 36-yard field goal attempt from Alvano from a tough angle missed wide left with 5:44 left in the third.
Nebraska ran 20 plays inside the Illinois 25-yard line in the second half, but came up with just three points. But Illinois ran 15 plays inside its own 25 in the half, and only ran eight second-half snaps in NU territory - all on its final unsuccessful drive of the game.
Isaac Gifford led a collection of outstanding individual defensive performances, finishing with eight tackles. He added three pass breakups on the final drive of the game to seal the win. They were three of Nebraska's season-high seven breakups on the night.
John Bullock contributed six tackles and a breakup of his own, while Sanford added six stops of his own and the forced fumble that led to the only points of the second half.
Quinton Newsome contributed five tackles and his first career interception, which he returned 39 yards in the fourth quarter to help shut out Illinois in the second half.
Nebraska will enjoy a bye week next week before returning home to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Memorial Stadium against Northwestern on Oct. 21. Game time and television information have not yet been announced.