LINCOLN, Neb. – Even if Wes Lunt had been able to play against Nebraska, it probably wouldn't have mattered. Not with the Illinois defense unable to slow the Cornhuskers' running game.
The Illini allowed 458 yards rushing and 624 overall in a 45-14 loss to the No. 21 Huskers on Saturday night.
"We knew from coming into this week that they wanted to run the ball. Outside zone, inside zone, they wanted to run the ball," linebacker T.J. Neal Jr. said. "They're a running team. And they had an aggressive offensive line that made it hard to get to the running back."
Ameer Abdullah had 196 of his 208 yards as the Huskers built a 31-14 halftime lead, and then Imani Cross stepped in and finished with a career-high 109 yards.
Illinois (3-2, 0-1) started Reilly O'Toole at quarterback in place of Lunt, who was held out because he still was feeling the effects of a leg injury from last week's game against Texas State. The Big Ten's second-leading passer went through pregame warmups and was available if needed.
O'Toole was 17 for 38 for 261 yards and two touchdowns and was intercepted three times, twice by Daniel Davie.
Coach Tim Beckman said Lunt was "fine" but lacked mobility.
"I am going to take care of this football team, let that be known first," Beckman said. "He practiced on Thursday. We still thought he would have an opportunity to play. So that is why we did not announce anything. Because, just as UCLA's quarterback was a game-time-decision, ours was in the process on Thursday, because he did take some reps."
Illinois turned a couple big plays into first-half touchdowns. Josh Ferguson left safety Corey Cooper on his heels with a slick move on a 41-yard run that marked the fourth time in five games that Nebraska has allowed a touchdown on its first defensive series. Geronimo Allison used his 5-inch height advantage to grab a deep ball over cornerback Josh Mitchell, then turned and ran the rest of the way for a 58-yard TD.
Those two drives accounted for 145 yards. The Illini totaled 161 yards on their other 11 possessions against Nebraska's No. 1 defense.
Nebraska (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) is off to its best start since 2010 heading into next week's game at No. 9 Michigan State.
The Huskers had 190 yards on the ground in the first quarter alone against Illinois.
"Some teams are happy to do that in a game," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "It changes a game, it wears on people. There's nothing more demoralizing than when you can't stop the run. I thought that really set the tone."
Said Beckman: "The game comes down to not stopping the run and not having enough consistency on the offensive side of the ball."
Abdullah went over 100 yards nine minutes into the game and scored the Huskers' first three touchdowns on runs of 12, 8 and 2 yards. Abdullah broke four runs of 20 yards or longer, had three others longer than 10 and left after his 22nd carry after he went over 200 for the second straight year against the Illini.
"Their offensive line is very good. I think Ameer would be first to tell you that," Beckman said. "He's as good as anybody in the country."
Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong Jr. was 10 of 21 for 166 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. He attempted only three passes through the first quarter and a half, each one incomplete. On the fourth, he hit Kenny Bell in stride on a fly pattern for a 63-yard touchdown that made it 28-7.
Illinois' offensive line had more than it could handle dealing with defensive end Randy Gregory, who had 2 1/2 sacks and three quarterback hurries — not to mention a bone-jarring block on Malik Turner to help facilitate Nate Gerry's 53-yard interception return that set up a short scoring drive.
The Illini have lost 16 of 17 Big Ten games in three seasons under Beckman and eight in a row against Top 25 opponents since 2011.