Illini defense put to test against Nebraska, Abdullah


Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah has rushed for 625 yards and five touchdowns in four games this season. He is emerging as an early Heisman candidate.

By Sean Neumann

Waiting in Lincoln, Nebraska, is Ameer Abdullah. Illinois’ rushing defense has struggled this season and will have its hands full trying to stop Nebraska’s star running back — one of the nation’s best rushers and an early Heisman candidate — on Saturday.

Abdullah already has 625 rushing yards and five touchdowns in his first four games.

“I’ve been doing this a while, and he’s definitely one of the better backs I’ve seen,” Illinois’ defensive coordinator Tim Banks said.

The senior Nebraska running back carried the ball for 229 yards and two touchdowns on 35 attempts last Saturday against Miami. He also caught one pass for a touchdown.

“He looked as good with the 35th snap as he did with the first snap,” Banks said. “He’s strong, and he’s really powerful.”

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Defensive still feels improved

Although the Illini defense has struggled again this season, there’s still a surge in confidence and sense of pride in its improvement among the team.

Last season, Illinois allowed opponents an average of 238.6 rushing yards per game. This season’s 172.5 yards per game — 12th in the Big Ten — is an improvement through four games.

“People are getting a lot more experience and are getting a lot more comfortable in the system,” defensive lineman Austin Teitsma said. “I’ve definitely seen that with Jihad Ward. I’ve seen that with Chunky (Carroll Phillips).”

Ward has two sacks and three and a half tackles for loss in his first four games.

Illinois’ tackling struggles have created problems behind the defensive line, raising question as to how they’ll bring down the 195-pound Abdullah.

“We just have to take great angles to the ball,” Banks said. “We understand that he’s a dynamic guy with the ball in his hands, and he can go the distance, but he definitely loves to cut the ball back, and he has such a low center of gravity that sometimes it’s hard to wrap him up.”

Adjusting to the pressure

Illinois isn’t expected to win against No. 21 Nebraska, and the Illini believe the low expectations will allow them to catch the Cornhuskers off guard.

“Being an underdog is a powerful thing,” quarterback Wes Lunt said. “We’re going to use it as motivation as much as we can.” 

Saturday’s game will be the first night game for the Illini, who briefly experienced a setting under the lights this past Saturday against Texas State after a weather delay.

Lunt said he enjoys night games and believes they’re a nice change of pace.

The Illini will also have to adjust to a louder crowd. Nebraska had a record crowd Saturday against Miami, hosting 91,585 fans — more than double the 38,605 tickets Illinois has averaged in sales this season.

“We got a taste of it in Washington, but it’s going to be different being a night game on national television,” Lunt said.

Illinois prepares in practice by blasting music during in-game situations, something Teitsma said prepares the team for big games with large crowds such as the one expected in Nebraska — which has a sellout streak dating back to 1962.

“Getting to play in front of that many people is a cool challenge for us,” Teitsma said. “Our coach does a great job with music blaring all the time. We’ll be ready.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @neumannthehuman.