Nebraska vs. Illinois, 9.29.17

Nebraska has allowed just two offensive touchdowns since half time of the Oregon game.

ERIC GREGORY, Lincoln Journal Star

LINCOLN -- The red zone, more times than not, is the danger zone for opposing defenses.

For Nebraska's defense, it appears to be a comfort zone.

The latest example came Friday night in Champaign, when Illinois sensed the end zone on two occasions, but only came away with two field goals.

Score two touchdowns, and the Illini — at the very least — make the Huskers sweat out a win. Instead, those two defensive stops allowed the Huskers to take control in a 28-6 victory.

"(We) didn't really break at the end," Husker junior nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg said. "We didn't allow for any touchdowns, which is huge for us. It's really important for us and something we can definitely build on."

Illinois ran 12 plays — nine rushing and three passing — from the Nebraska 21-yard line and in. Those nine rushes went for 14 yards, and the Illini completed one pass in the red zone, which came on a trick play.

"It was really fun to be a part of some moments of low red-zone defense, and bowing their backs and getting a couple stops," Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. "That was really cool."

Stoltenberg said the Huskers put an emphasis on three areas — red-zone defense, third-down defense and sudden-change defense.

The Blackshirts excelled in all three areas against the Illini. In fact, the sudden-change situation was maybe as important as the red-zone limitations.

After recovering a Devine Ozigbo fumble midway through the third quarter, Illinois was 32 yards away from making it a one-possession game.

But quarterback Chayce Crouch was sacked twice on the three-play drive, the first time by redshirt freshman Ben Stille, which caused a fumble. The second was a 12-yard drop by sophomore Carlos Davis.

On the ensuing possession, Nebraska drove 93 yards for a touchdown.

"The sudden-change stop, we’ve been working really hard for them to go out there in very challenging circumstances after sudden change, and to get that three down stop was fun," Diaco said.

Illinois was 5-for-12 on third-down opportunities, including 2-for-6 in the second half. Like they did against Rutgers, the Huskers brought a lot pressure on third down.

Nebraska's first two opponents — Arkansas State and Oregon — combined to convert 14 of 27 third-down chances (52 percent). The Huskers' last three opponents have gone 11-for-37 (30 percent).

Nebraska's last three opposing quarterbacks — from Northern Illinois, Rutgers and Illinois — combined to drop back to pass 22 times in third-down situations. They completed just 6 of 17 passes, and were sacked five times.

"I think the biggest things for us is mindset, and we’ve really bought in to what we’re doing," junior linebacker Luke Gifford said. "And when we were shown what was going on in film, there really wasn’t anything that was too big. It was something that we could fix really easily, and we have. Obviously there’s always things to work on, but we’re really happy with where we’re at right now."

Some more defensive figures:

• Nebraska held Illinois to 199 total yards, marking the third straight game the Huskers have held an opponent to fewer than 250 yards. The last time that happened came in 2003, when the Huskers held Oklahoma State, Utah State and Penn State to less than 250 yards apiece to start the season.

• The Huskers have posted three of the top four efforts under coach Mike Riley (in terms of yards) in the past three weeks.

• Nebraska now ranks 34th nationally in total defense, allowing 333.8 yards per game. The Huskers ranked 122nd after the Oregon loss.

• The Huskers rank 22nd nationally in rushing defense (105.8 yards per game).

• Nebraska has limited explosive plays to almost none. Since allowing a 47-yard catch in the fourth quarter against Northern Illinois, the Blackshirts have allowed zero plays of 20 yards or more.

• The Huskers have forced 11 three-and-outs since the Oregon loss.

It should be noted that Illinois ranks 126th nationally in total offense, and Rutgers is 117th. How far along Diaco's group has come along will be answered against No. 8 Wisconsin at 7 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

"They can feel themselves improving this each week," Diaco said. "It hasn’t just been this moment. And they took another step forward (Friday) on the road against a Big Ten team. And like I said, we’re interested in the points. So they did a nice job executing the plan."

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