LINCOLN — Nebraska lost a fumble on the first play of the game. And that was only the beginning of a disastrous Saturday that quickly got away from the Huskers.
One week after a spirit-boosting victory over Penn State, NU (1-3) regressed in an alarming way with a 41-23 gut-punch loss against Illinois. The offense — with redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey making his second career start — committed five turnovers. The defense was hapless on third down (allowing 11 conversions in 17 tries) and most every other down as well (giving up an average of 6.4 yards per play).
It all added up to a blowout loss to Illinois (2-3), which hadn’t scored more than 24 points in a game this season. The Illini’s offense got a boost from the return of quarterback Brandon Peters, who’d been in COVID protocol for 21 days and tore up the Huskers on 18-of-25 passing for 205 yards and a touchdown. The visitors dominated possession time (36:21-23:39) and out-snapped NU 77-74.
“I was embarrassed by our level of execution in all three phases,” Scott Frost said. “I didn’t think we had the juice we had last week. We didn’t get as many hats to the ball on defense, we made mistakes over and over on offense, we made mistakes on special teams. I wasn’t happy with it. I didn’t really see it coming. It was almost like our team thought, ‘We won one game, we’re good.’ That’s not how it works in this league, it’s not how it works in life, it’s not how it works in football.”
McCaffrey ran 26 times for 122 yards and two touchdowns while completing 15 of 26 passes for 134 with three interceptions.
Big Red from slipped to the bottom of the Big Ten West standings and is reevaluating itself yet again ahead of a looming Black Friday game at Iowa.
The biggest early concern was Illinois effortlessly gutting Nebraska with the run. The Illini averaged 7.9 yards per carry in the first half and busted off runs of 58 and 35 yards. NU’s linebackers were consistently walled off — either by the opponent or their teammates — from Illinois ball carriers Chase Brown and Mike Epstein, and the Husker defensive line made few pushes into the backfield.
The Illini were hot from the very start — scoring less than two minutes into the game — thanks to a strange, controversial fumble on NU’s opening play.
McCaffrey faked a handoff to Marvin Scott, then moved to his left on a run-pass option. Though he’d stepped beyond the line of scrimmage, McCaffrey attempted to throw a pass to a covered Wan’Dale Robinson. The ball appeared to land a half-yard ahead of where McCaffrey started his motion, but it was ruled a fumble. Officials did not review the play, and Illinois took over at the Husker 21.
The Illini scored three plays later.
Nebraska answered with a 12-play, 71-yard drive full of play-action passes and strong runs from Scott, who toted the ball four times for 20 yards. McCaffrey finished off the drive with a five-yard quarterback draw to draw NU into a 7-7 tie.
Illinois’ next drive showed its first touchdown was no fluke, though. A nine-play, 75-yard march culminated in Brown’s two-yard plunge, which was set up by a perfectly executed power play in which Brown ran behind two pulling blockers for 35 yards until he was knocked out of bounds by Nebraska cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt. The newly minted Blackshirts struggled with an Illinois run game full of misdirection and pulling linemen.
The Huskers’ offense, meanwhile, hurt itself with multiple drops from receivers, whiffed blocks on McCaffrey runs and, on a fourth down from Illinois’ 42, a bad snap from center Cameron Jurgens that went high and to the right of McCaffrey’s head. The quarterback scooped it up and tried to make some of the play, but threw an interception.
Helped by a 15-yard personal foul on NU defensive end Casey Rogers, Illinois turned that mishap into another touchdown, as Peters hit receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe for a 28-yard touchdown on third down. Imatorbhebhe had beaten Husker corner Dicaprio Bootle and caught the Peters pass on his back shoulder. Illinois led 21-7. Later in the second quarter, the Illini went 89 yards in four plays for its final touchdown of the half.
Nebraska appeared to force a quick three-and-out after halftime but punter Blake Hayes made an adventurous, slow-developing 14-yard run for a first down when he saw Nebraska tacklers quickly clear out downfield. The possession continued and melted nearly five more minutes off the game clock, ending with a 24-yard field goal when the Blackshirts bowed up in the red zone.
After a beleaguered first half, the offense — with McCaffrey still at the helm — quickly covered 75 yards in six plays to bag its first second-half touchdown of the season. The big play was Robinson’s weaving 32-yard run that set up a McCaffrey 1-yard scoring sneak to pull NU within 31-17.
But Illinois answered yet again, this time stringing together 10 plays for 75 yards and a score. Chunk yardage in the passing game — including completions of 25 and 23 yards — pushed the visitors into the red zone, where Peters eventually crossed the goal line from a yard out.
The disaster continued to snowball on the ensuing NU drive as Robinson fumbled away the ball at the end of a 10-yard run on fourth-and-1. Illinois eventually turned the gift into a field goal to push the lead to 41-17 but not until after senior captain and inside linebacker Collin Miller was carted off the field with a potentially serious injury.
Quarterback Adrian Martinez, who accounted for more than 400 yards of offense for Nebraska in last year’s 42-38 win over Illinois, didn’t appear until 4:10 remained in the game. He led a touchdown drive that ended with a four-yard, roll-out touchdown pass to receiver Levi Falck.
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