LINCOLN — Terrell Newby got the first down by an inch. By game’s end, he’d rip off a run that, given the Huskers’ game-long struggles against plucky Illinois, seemed like a mile.
When Newby put the finishing touches on Nebraska’s 31-16 win with a 63-yard sprint to the end zone, the quiet senior had finally turned the Memorial Stadium crowd to full blast. The 90,394 fanshad spent most of the day a little anxious. The Huskers looked listless. They blocked and tackled poorly. Coach Mike Riley conceded Illinois, perhaps headed for the Big Ten West cellar, had the edge for most of the game.
Worst of all, key offensive playmakers — Cethan Carter, Jordan Westerkamp and Devine Ozigbo — kept leaving the game with potentially serious injuries.
Good thing Nebraska gets a bye week. NU will limp into it, but it’ll do so with an undefeated smile. The Huskers, 5-0 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten, have already matched their regular season win total from 2015. It took the most time-consuming drive in years, a fourth-down gut check and a career-defining game from Newby to do so.
“When it all came down to it today — when nobody else was left — he stepped up,” said Riley of Newby, who had 27 carries for 140 yards and two touchdowns. Riley added that Newby “was a real man.”
“That guy is grinding,” quarterback Tommy Armstrong said.
“I knew I had to carry the load,” Newby said.
Did he ever. Nebraska ran the ball 18 times for 114 yards in the fourth quarter. Newby got 16 of those carries for 113 yards. He also caught a third-down swing pass for 21 yards. He ran behind a banged-up Husker offensive line that started opening bigger and bigger holes after being pushed around by Illinois’ defensive line for three quarters. Newby played his part, bouncing off Illini defenders, twisting for extra yards.
“We started to wear those guys down,” Newby said. “That’s one of those things we take pride in. You see a defense getting tired — that’s what we thrive on.”
Newby’s most crucial fourth-quarter run was one of his least auspicious: fourth-and-1 at the Illinois 4.
It came on the 17th play of an 18-play, 75-yard, 10-minute, 42-second march — the most time-consuming Husker touchdown drive since at least 2000, according to Nebraska’s research. Twice, Illinois had extended Nebraska’s drive with penalties; now, NU — trailing 16-10 — would have to do so on its own.
Riley turned down a chip-shot field goal to press forward.
“The way that game was going, I just thought, ‘we’d better do this right now,’” Riley said. “I felt like the more confidence we gave them, the worse it was.”
Originally, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf had called a pass. Armstrong checked to a run. Newby got the ball, ran over the right side of the offensive line, and landed somewhere near the first down. Nebraska got its first down by an inch, the very nose of the football.
Both Riley and Newby, in the postgame press conference, held their thumb and forefinger out to indicate how close it was.
Officials decided to review the spot. Riley knew, through experience talking with officials, that there is no tougher review for the instant replay booth than a ball spot. ESPN’s camera appeared to provide no clear look at whether Newby got the first down.
So NU got the first down. Newby scored on a 3-yard touchdownon the next play. Illinois didn’t get a first down for the rest of the game. The Illini ran just 44 plays. Nebraska ran 72 and held the ball for 38 minutes, so it wasn’t too surprising that the Huskers outscored the Illini 21-0 in the fourth quarter.
“That’s the thing we always say: Those short runs will turn into long runs at the end of the game,” Newby said. “We keep at it and keep at it. It’s good it paid off.”
It took so much time to bust open the runs, Armstrong said, because Illinois’ defensive line was so talented.
“Those 2-, 3-yard runs start turning into 4-, 5-, 6-yard runs,” Armstrong said. “That’s we needed.”
Nebraska also needed its defense — which struggled in the second and third quarters, when the Illini (1-3, 0-1) scored all of their points and 238 of their 270 yards — to deliver in the fourth quarter. The Blackshirts did, with key pass breakups from Aaron Williams and Josh Kalu.
Smith, an NFL veteran in his first year as a college head coach, also chose to punt when Illinois was faced with its own fourth-and-1. The Illini trailed 24-16 at the time. Smith had three timeouts to stop the clock, but his defense was also reeling, having just surrendered two straight touchdowns.
“I thought that gave us the best chance to win under those circumstances,” Smith said of punting.
Newby slammed the door with the 63-yarder, a picture of perfect blocking and decisive running.
Walk-on Cole Conrad — who was playing for right tackle David Knevel, who hurt his ankle — turned and shoved Illinois’ best defensive player, end Dawuane Smoot, well out of the way. Center Dylan Utter got just enough of his man, and Newby turned the corner into a 5-yard hole. The senior hit the gas and outran four Illini defenders to the end zone.
“It was wide open,” Newby said.
Other than pointing to the sky, Newby was calm after the score. That’s his personality, but Riley and Newby’s teammates have noticed him, since spring practice, as a quiet leader.
“He’ll get up and hand the ref the ball and go back and do it again,” Josh Banderas said. “Very humble guy. Doesn’t talk much. But he’s a great player.”
The guy who executes cut blocks downfield. The guy who has become Nebraska’s best pass blocker. The one Husker runner with true big-play speed.
If Nebraska loses Carter, Westerkamp and Ozigbo for any extended period of time, Newby may carry even more of the load than he already does.
Newby’s game for that, but he, like every other Husker, is ready for a week of rest.
“It’s a great time for a bye week,” he said.
Especially at 5-0.