LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Taylor Martinez will be back as Nebraska’s starting quarterback when he’s healthy enough to play. Coach Bo Pelini said as much minutes after the Cornhuskers finished a 39-19 victory over Illinois on Saturday.
Meanwhile, the Huskers offense isn’t slowing down without the fourth-year starter.
Ameer Abdullah ran for a career-high 225 yards, Tommy Armstrong Jr. led the Huskers (4-1, 1-0) to touchdowns on his first three series at quarterback and Nebraska piled up 521 yards in the Big Ten opener.
“We’re a dangerous duo now. We go out there and we move the chains,” Armstrong said, recalling what Abdullah told him after the game.
Just as big as Abdullah and Armstrong’s performance was that of Nebraska’s defense, which had been one of the nation’s worst through four games.
Illinois (3-2, 0-1), which came in averaging 40 points a game, didn’t score its first touchdown until the middle of the third quarter. Twice when the Illini looked as if they would make a game of it, the Huskers made big stops.
“I liked a lot of things we did defensively,” Pelini said. “I’m always cautious when I look at it, because I know there were some things we did alignment-wise we didn’t execute that didn’t hurt us that could hurt us going forward. I saw definite progress, but nowhere near where we need to be.”
Neither are the young Illini, who lost their 15th straight Big Ten game and play defending champion Wisconsin at home after an open date.
“That is what we told our football team, you are playing against a team that played in the championship game last year, and the next opponent will be the other one,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “So this year it is definitely a measuring stick.”
The Huskers were never threatened. Their defense got a three-and-out on the first series of the game, and then Abdullah did most of the work on a 57-yard touchdown drive. Ciante Evans forced a Donovonn Young fumble on Illinois’ next possession, and it was 14-0 after Armstrong flipped a 4-yard TD pass to Quincy Enunwa.
Abdullah had three runs of 30 yards or longer and averaged 11.2 yards a carry. His best run came in the third quarter, when he took a pitch from Armstrong and started to his right. He made two defenders miss, then cut to his left and ran diagonally to the end zone for a 43-yard touchdown that had the Memorial Stadium crowd roaring.
Abdullah said he was motivated to get to the end zone when he saw offensive lineman Jake Cotton blocking far downfield for him. Abdullah said the receivers and fullbacks also sprung him for big gains all afternoon.
“Those are the guys who do all the dirty work and never get their name put in the clippings,” Abdullah said. “All you see is 225 from Ameer, but you never see the hard work that (fullbacks) Andy Janovich and C.J. Zimmerer do. I really just tip my hat to those guys.”
Abdullah had the most yards by a Nebraska player since Roy Helu Jr. rushed for a school-record 307 against Missouri in 2010.
Kenny Bell produced a highlight-worthy touchdown when he made a leaping one-handed grab over the middle and ran the last 15 yards to finish a 37-yard TD that made it 36-12.
“We got pushed around a little bit,” Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown said. “They were big up front. But I feel like we gave it our best effort. We still made some mistakes that just gave them plays. It’s not like they came out and completely just blew us off the ball.”
Armstrong was 8 of 13 for 135 yards in his second straight start in place of Martinez, who is battling a painful injury to his left big toe.
Pelini said he didn’t know if Martinez would be ready for next Saturday’s game at Purdue. There will be no quarterback controversy, though.
“I think Taylor has earned over a long period of time … when he’s ready to go, he’ll be the starting quarterback,” Pelini said.
That’s fine with Armstrong, a redshirt freshman.
“Taylor, he’s the guy for this offense. I’ll be patient,” Armstrong said. “My number is going to be called every game next year.”
Josh Ferguson led the Illini with 114 yards on 19 carries and another 82 yards on eight catches. He scored on a 1-yard run with under a minute to play. Nathan Scheelhaase was 13 of 26 for 135 yards.
The Huskers allowed 372 yards, 92 under its 107th-ranked season average of 464.
Maybe the biggest stop came after Illinois tied up Imani Cross in the end zone for a safety and took possession at its 47 following the free kick. The Illini could have made it a two-possession game, but a three-and-out left it 23-5 at half.
“That could have been a turning point in the game, and our guys stood up and did a good job there,” Pelini said. “I saw progress, and that’s what you want to look for.”
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