10 things we learned from Nebraska's loss to Illinois
Here are 10 of our biggest takeaways from Nebraska's 41-23 loss to Illinois on Saturday...
1. Another step forward followed by 10 steps back
Just when you thought Nebraska had found something and maybe turned a corner as a program in last week’s win over Penn State, Saturday’s debacle vs. Illinois sent things tumbling back to ground zero.
As has been the case far too often, the Huskers lost all of the momentum they gained the previous week. They looked nothing like the team that pulled together and found a way to win just seven days earlier, and certainly not like a team that was a 16-point favorite.
Instead, they reverted to all of the same old blunders and ineptitude that have become the norm for Nebraska football over the years. Turnovers, penalties, bad snaps, missed receivers, poor tackling, blown assignments – if there was a way to lose on Saturday, NU did it.
There have been many ugly moments in Husker football over the past decade, but Saturday’s loss and the helpless manner in which it happened puts it near the top (or bottom) of that list. It has to be one of, if not the worst defeat of head coach Scott Frost’s tenure.
A victory over Illinois would have given the Huskers two straight weeks of confidence, and it would have changed the entire outlook of next week’s trip to Iowa and the rest of the schedule.
Instead, Nebraska is left with absolutely nothing to feel good about, and you have to wonder if this team has the resolve to make the most of whatever remains of this season.
2. Blackshirts were left black and blue
This week was Blackshirts week, as Nebraska’s staff awarded 12 of the coveted black practice jerseys following the defense’s best performance of the year against Penn State.
The Huskers even broke out the all-black “Blackshirts” alternate uniforms against Illinois.
So, of course, that was followed with one of the most embarrassing defensive performances NU has put up in years.
The Fighting Illini did whatever it wanted offensively from start to finish on Saturday, racking up 490 total yards and 285 yards rushing, converting 11-of-17 first downs, and scoring touchdowns on four of their first five possessions.
Nebraska gave up 97 yards (6.5 per play and 7.3 yards per rush) and two touchdowns in the first quarter alone and didn’t get its first defensive stop until the 11:49 mark in the second quarter.
This was an offense that hadn’t scored more than 24 points all season came in ranked 115th nationally at 17.0 points scored per game.
At this point, it doesn’t matter what the staff decides to do with the Blackshirts going forward. Until the defense can consistently perform, especially against one of the worst offenses in the country, all that tradition will be are fancy practice jerseys.
3. Wash, rinse, repeat
It probably didn’t matter much who Nebraska played on Saturday because, once again, it did everything possible to beat itself.
Five turnovers and seven penalties were just the highlights of a litany of mistakes made by the Huskers in that loss.
McCaffrey was credited with a lost fumble on the first play from scrimmage (though it should have been reviewed and wasn’t). The defense jumped offsides one play later, and then Illinois recovered its forward fumble for a first down.
The miscues would continue to snowball from there, to the point where it almost became a comedy of errors in all three phases for NU.
In the third year under Frost, these things can’t happen, especially at the volume they did in just one game like on Saturday. Everyone was at fault in this one, and the Huskers won’t beat anyone until these things get fixed.
4. McCaffrey showed how far he still has to go
McCaffrey gave Nebraska a lot to feel good about in his first career start last week. On Saturday, he reminded everyone just how much development still needs to be done.
His running was the only consistent source of offense in the loss, as he rushed 26 times for 122 yards and two touchdowns. The 26 carries were just four shy of the Jammal Lord's school record of 30 set back in 2002.
But his inability to find wide-open receivers downfield and deliver accurate passes in tight windows made NU’s offense stagnant and predictable. If McCaffrey wasn’t running or improvising plays out of the pocket, the Huskers weren’t moving the ball.
Those are the risks you take when putting a redshirt freshman with one start under his belt at the helm. The Huskers even stuck with him after an awful first half when they could have gone back to Adrian Martinez at the break.
They eventually put Martinez in after McCaffrey’s third touchdowns, and he completed 3-of-4 passes for 43 yards and a four-yard touchdown in garbage time.
Now Nebraska has a decision to make: will it continue to ride the rollercoaster of McCaffrey’s ups and downs, or will it go back to the more proven commodity in Martinez?
5. Without Mills, running backs were non-factors
After missing the majority of last week’s win over Penn State with an undisclosed injury, Nebraska was once again without senior running back Dedrick Mills on Saturday.
On top of that, redshirt freshman Ronald Thompkins – the No. 2 back to open the season – was also held out after missing the PSU game.
That left true freshmen Marvin Scott III, redshirt freshman Rahmir, and sophomore receiver Wan’Dale Robinson working into the backfield mix.
Needless to say, the running back production was non-existent regardless of who was in the game.
Scott made his first career start and carried eight times for 22 yards (he also had a touchdown negated by a holding penalty). Robinson had 70 yards on seven attempts, though 32 of those came on one run.
Once again, the only way NU moved the ball consistently on the ground (or at all) was with the quarterback run game.
6. Third downs continue to bite the Huskers
It’s a long list of all the ways Nebraska lost this game, but third downs proved to be almost as costly as anything for the Huskers.
Illinois ended the day a whopping 11-for-17 (64.7 percent) on third downs, while the Huskers were just 4-of-12 (33.3). Of the Illini’s 11 successful conversions, four were from five yards or longer, and two resulted in touchdowns.
Nebraska’s defense has struggled on third downs all season, ranking 114th nationally in third-down defense with a 50-percent stop rate coming into the game.
But Illinois’s offense had been even worse on the down, converting just 31 percent of its tries to rank dead last in the Big Ten. On Saturday, the Illini were successful on their first four third-downs of the game and five of their first six.
7. Officials explained why NU's first 'fumble' wasn't reviewed
The game couldn’t have gotten off to a much worse start for Nebraska, as Luke McCaffrey’s rollout and toss to Robinson hit the turf and was ruled a lateral and a fumble by the officials.
Illinois recovered at the NU 21-yard line, and the ruling stood without ever going to replay review.
Frost said he never got a clear explanation of why the officials didn’t review the play, but Referee John O'Neill was asked about it by the media pool reporter after the game.
“When in the open field the quarterback threw a backward pass, I can’t remember who the receiver was. The covering official ruled it a backward pass. The play was reviewable, but we didn’t have a camera with a shot right down the line of scrimmage. The replay official let it stand because there would have been no indisputable evidence.”
McCaffrey said he thought it was a forward pass, and television replays on the FS1 broadcast certainly made it look like the ball went forward. Apparently, the officials were the only ones who didn’t get to see those camera angles.
8. Snaps remain a problem, leading to change at center
Nebraska’s issues with snaps remain a significant problem for the offense, and they were once again on Saturday.
Whether it was inaccurate snaps or McCaffrey mishandling the ball, the connection between center Cam Jurgens and McCaffrey was off all game.
The Huskers made a change at center midway through the game, replacing Jurgens with senior Matt Farniok. Senior Boe Wilson took over for Farniok at right guard for the rest of the day.
Frost said Jurgens re-aggravated a foot injury that forced him to miss the Northwestern game, which Frost said played a part in Jurgens’ snapping troubles.
Either way, Frost made it clear that something had to be done to address what should be one of the easiest aspects of the game.
9. Martin makes his debut
One of the few bright spots on Saturday was the debut of wide receiver Oliver Martin.
The former Iowa and Michigan transfer was finally ruled eligible for this season before the Penn State game, and he made his first impact as a Husker against Illinois.
Martin made his first catch on a 16-yard grab to set Nebraska up with a first-and-goal from the 9-yard line with just under 10 minutes left in the second quarter. That gave him a reception for three different Big Ten teams.
Martin finished with two catches for 30 yards, but he figures to continue to work into the Huskers’ offense in the future.
10. Early reports were positive on Miller
With 11:53 left in the fourth quarter and the outcome already decided, the worst part of the day happened when Collin Miller went down and did not get back up.
After a collision near the NU five-yard line, the senior inside linebacker went down to the turf and remained motionless for several minutes. Trainers took him off the field on a stretcher as his teammates and Illinois players kneeled around him and on both sidelines.
As scary as that moment was, Frost said that the initial reports on Miller were positive after the game. He said Miller was talking and moving while on the field, and he reported full feeling and movement in his extremities.
"Right now, cautiously optimistic that everything looks good," Frost said. "From what I hear, he’s got feeling everywhere, full range of motion, movement, and the preliminary examination looks pretty good. Our prayers are with him.”