Final take: This was more than a step back
We've seen plenty of bad losses in the last 10 to 15 years with Nebraska football, but Saturday was different than all of them.
NU's loss to Illinois is the first time I can remember the Huskers being outplayed so poorly in a game on paper they were considered a 17-point favorite.
It was also a reminder that this is no longer the Big Ten of 2011. This league is deeper. Coaches are paid more and there are better players in the conference top to bottom than 10 years ago. That means if you don't show up mentally ready to play, you can get beat by anybody. There are no guarantees in the Big Ten of 2020. Scott Frosts's team learned that lesson the hard way on Saturday in their 41-23 loss to Illinois.
They took the field on Saturday with the mentality the Illini were just going to fall down and give them a win.
“I feel like we’ve come a long way, but it sure didn’t feel like it today," Frost said on Saturday. "We’re going to get this fixed, but the results need to come. The results are going to come, and this is what I told the players, the results are going to come when their expectations and their effort are aligned. I didn’t think we had as much juice today. I didn’t think we had as much enthusiasm.
"I didn’t see it coming, but I feel like we were lackadaisical today. We acted like we won one game and we were going to be fine."
Penn State learned the same thing vs. Maryland. Michigan State learned that vs. Rutgers. Anybody can beat anybody in this league, and Saturday was a cold reminder of that. On a day where we should be talking about Nebraska evening their record to 2-2, we are instead now questioning the entire direction of the program.
There are no excuses for this one. NU was not mentally or physically ready to play vs. Illinois, and that is simply inexcusable. They lost in all three phases Saturday.
"It simply was bad today. That starts with me and goes to the whole team," Frost said. "The guys have got to prepare a little better. The coaches need to prepare a little better. We’ve got what we need in that locker room. To win, we’ve got to bring it together.”
This is without a doubt the worst moment of the Scott Frost era, because, by year three, losses like this should not be happening to bottom-tier teams in the league.
These are games the Huskers need to win to take that next step, and that didn't happen on Saturday.
We are going to learn a lot about the character of this football team going forward and how much they really want it.
“We can't take any week off for granted coming off a win. I mean, that's something we need to get used to around here is winning," junior tight end Austin Allen said. "I think coming out the gates this week we were very businesslike. We were doing the right things.
"Just the lack of energy going into practice. We're doing the right things, getting what we need to get done. It's just we're just going through the motions. And that's on us as leaders to notice that and pick this up.”
Now on to the breakdown...
What I saw on Saturday
***The day started off bad right out of the gates. Nebraska was called for a fumble on what appeared to be a forward pass by Luke McCaffrey beyond the line of scrimmage. It's amazing there was not an official review on the play. I'm also surprised Frost didn't call a timeout to challenge the play. That moment set the tone for the entire day. Later on, the Big Ten officiating crew said replay didn't have an adequate angle to look at it. Apparently, they didn't have the same angle we saw on FS1.
***In all there were three missed reviews by the officials early in this game. The McCaffrey lateral looked like a forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage. Then you had the Brandon Peters fumble that moved the ball forward near the goal line five yards, where his knee was actually down. The other missed review came on a third-and-1 stop where the ball carrier was short of the first down and the officials gave him the spot. All three were plays that should've been reviewed and hurt the Huskers early.
***The bad snaps continue for Cameron Jurgens at center. The Huskers pulled him at halftime and moved Matt Farniok from right guard to center.
***Iowa transfer wide receiver Oliver Martin and JUCO transfer defensive back Nadab Joseph both made their Husker debuts on Saturday. Martin has now caught a pass for the different Big Ten teams.
***This backfield desperately needs Dedrick Mills back at Iowa. Without Mills and Ronald Thompkins, the Huskers are just piecemealing a backfield together. They got just 25 yards on nine carries from their two true tailbacks that played on Saturday. The rest came from quarterbacks and wide receivers.
***This staff has a very difficult decision going forward with the quarterback position. They made the move to McCaffrey after Northwestern, but was it premature?
We are seeing how dominant the Wildcats are on defense. Was his play that day as much to do about Northwestern? McCaffrey is a better runner, but his inability to consistently throw downfield has really hurt this offense. Should they have gone to Martinez to start the third quarter?
***Nebraska lost the turnover battle 5-0 on Saturday. Not much more needs to be said about that number.
The final grade out
Rushing offense: C
Nebraska ran for 215 yards on the ground, but they were very much empty yards. They got a lot of yards from McCaffrey runs on plays where he chose not to throw the football on obvious passing situations. Their lack of production from the running back position also continues to be a major problem.
Passing offense: F
McCaffrey finished 15-of-26 for 134 yards and three interceptions. His inability to throw downfield has become a real liability and opposing defenses appear to be daring him to throw deep.
Rushing defense: F
Illinois had two rushers run for over 100 yards and finished with 285 yards on the ground. Need I say more.
Passing defense: F
Nebraska continues to struggle to get off the field on third downs and consistently get pressure with a four-man rush. Brandon Peters had his way with NU whenever he faced obvious passing down situations.
Special teams: F
The big special teams blunder was not being prepared for Illinois's fake punt. That play set the tone for the second half after the Husker defense had their best three-and-out stop of the game. NU also got a bad block in the back penalty on a Cam Taylor-Britt punt return, and they failed to get any type of return on two of the three they chose to take out of the end zone on kickoffs. Even Matt Davison on the radio call said "maybe we should just fair catch it and take the ball on the 25."
Sean Callahan can be reached at email@example.com and he can be heard each day at 6:45 am and 5:05 pm on Big Red Radio 1110 KFAB in Omaha during the football season. He can also be seen on KETV Channel 7 in Omaha during the fall and each week he appears on NET's Big Red Wrap-Tuesday's at 7 pm.