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Illinois a non-starter in 39-19 loss to Nebraska

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (2) is brought down by Nebraskdefensive end Randy Gregory (44) second half an NCAA college football

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (2) is brought down by Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory (44) in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013. Nebraska won 39-19. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

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Updated: October 5, 2013 3:30PM

LINCOLN, Neb. — Illinois was in it all the way until the coin flip. But Nebraska won the toss, elected to force the Illini offense into a ferocious wind throughout the first quarter, and jumped out to a 14-0 lead.

It would grow to 17-0 before a Taylor Zalewski field goal finally got the Illini on the board midway through the second quarter. But field goals weren’t going to beat the Huskers (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) here on Saturday. Not with Tim Beckman’s defense still struggling to even begin to make its mark on what still has to be seen as a relatively promising season for the Illini (3-2, 0-1).

The final score: Nebraska 39, Illinois 19. The loss was one thing. To be blown out was a gut-punch to a team that felt confident it could win this game, especially with Huskers senior quarterback Taylor Martinez out of action with an injury.

Not surprisingly, the Illini were able to move the ball reasonably well between the 20s. Running back Josh Ferguson at times was the best player on the field. The sophomore finished with 1XX yards rushing — his second career 100-yard game and the Illini’s first since last October — and was the team’s only real weapon in the passing game.

A first-quarter fumble by running back Donovonn Young nipped a promising drive in the bud well into Huskers territory. Ferguson has outplayed Young dramatically enough this season that there’s no reason the two should continue to be listed as co-starters on the official depth chart.

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was blitzed relentlessly and was utterly unable to make the Huskers pay for it. But that was only a small problem compared with all that continues to ail the defense.

Given the way the Illini failed to shed blocks and whiffed on tackles, it would’ve been a shocker had Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah not had a career day running the ball. He was marvelous (though often untouched), finishing with 225 yards and two touchdowns.

Where do Beckman and defensive coordinator Tim Banks go from here? The pass rush was nonexistent again. The tackling was atrocious. The pass coverage was the worst thing of all.

All of the Illini’s significant problems are on the defensive side of the ball. It’s sort of a flip from a season ago, though things don’t seem nearly as dire this time around. It was a bad day, though, that’s for sure.


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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