LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska's big boys have been, well, coming up big.
With week-to-week uncertainty at quarterback, strong play from the veteran offensive line has played a large role in keeping the Cornhuskers moving.
That was certainly the case in Saturday's 39-19 victory over Illinois. The line cleared the way for 335 yards rushing for the second straight game. All that with no false starts and no holding penalties.
"I felt up front we were controlling the line of scrimmage," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. "We just rode them."
Of course, it didn't hurt having a hot back like Ameer Abdullah running behind those linemen. Abdullah rushed for a career-high 225 yards against the Illini, and the Huskers (4-1, 1-0) are second in the Big Ten and ninth nationally in rushing at 291.5 yards a game.
"That's what we live for," center Cole Pensick said. "We love running the ball."
Abdullah, as is his nature, gave all credit to his blockers. Pensick said it goes both ways.
"We trust him to hit his holes," Pensick said, "and he trusts us to make the right block."
Jeremiah Sirles, Andrew Rodriguez, Jake Cotton, Spencer Long and Pensick have combined to start 90 games on the line. That has lent stability to an offense led by redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. for two straight games in the absence of injured quarterback Taylor Martinez.
Offensive line coach John Garrison said he figured the onus would be on his unit on a chilly afternoon when the wind was howling at 26 mph.
"It was exciting to see our guys come out, with the opportunity we had starting Big Ten play," Garrison said. "It didn't take long to figure out we were going to have to run the ball."
The strength of Illinois' defense is in the front seven, and the Illini showed a variety of alignments.
"I think we can run on anyone," Long said. "When we get hats on all of their hats, and we can create a little space for the backs, we're hard to stop."
The linemen also allowed no sacks for the second straight game. They've kept the quarterback upright on 52 straight pass plays since early in the fourth quarter against UCLA.
Nebraska has given up just two sacks in five games, and its 0.4 average leads the nation.
But it's the run game that the linemen take most pride in, and receiver Kenny Bell said he could tell they were relishing their role against the Illini.
"They get to run downhill and get after people, which they did," Bell said. "There was one point where I thought a bomb went off and I looked and Jake Cotton had hit (a linebacker). I was like, 'Wow.' I asked the guy if he had a headache because I know I would have."
Next up is a trip this week to Purdue (1-4, 0-1), and the Huskers will want to play more power football against a defense that allowed 388 yards rushing to Wisconsin two weeks ago and is giving up an average of 187 a game.
Martinez's status remains uncertain. His turf-toe injury has kept him out of practice since Sept. 17.
If the line played like it did against Illinois, Beck isn't worried about moving the ball.
"Our offensive line did a good job of putting it on their back," Beck said, "and saying, 'Follow me.' "