Huskers fall apart in 30-22 loss to Illinois
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Nebraska was expecting so much to be different going into head coach Scott Frost’s fourth season in 2021. Instead, it was wash, rinse, and repeat of the three disappointing years.
Turnovers, penalties, mind-boggling mental mistakes, and dis-functional special teams showed up from the opening series and plagued the Huskers all day long. As a result, the Fighting Illini and first-year coach Bret Bielema delivered NU an absolute gut punch with a 30-22 defeat.
After leading 9-2 early in the second quarter, Nebraska gave up 28 unanswered points to Illinois and backup quarterback Artur Sitkowski.
Sitkowski, a transfer from Rutgers, replaced injured starter Brandon Peters late in the first quarter and completed 12-of-15 passes for 124 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions.
On the other side, the Huskers committed five costly penalties for 67 yards, gave up a fumble recovery for a touchdown, allowed five sacks, had a safety on a punt return, and missed two extra points.
While the defense did its part and then some to start the day, the rest of the game couldn’t have gone much worse for Nebraska in the first half.
The first blunder of the day came when Cam Taylor-Britt inexplicably fielded a bouncing punt at NU’s 1-yard line, then threw the ball forward while being tackled in the end zone.
Replay review showed his knee was down before the illegal forward pass, but the result still ended with a safety to put Illinois up 2-0 with 4:07 left in the first quarter.
Even after giving up a 45-yard run to Mike Epstein on the first play of the ensuing Illini drive, the Blackshirts held firm and knocked Peters out for the rest of the game on a Garrett Nelson sack. That led to a missed 55-yard field goal try.
The Huskers responded with a seven-play, 63-yard drive and scored on a two-yard touchdown run by Markese Stepp to start the second quarter. But even that was marred when Connor Culp shanked the extra point to leave it at a 6-2 lead.
After moving the ball down the IU nine, Nebraska had to settle for a 27-yard field goal by Culp to go up 9-2.
The defense then appeared to make a game-changing play when Taylor-Britt picked off Sitkowski at midfield on the next drive. But Caleb Tannor was flagged for roughing the passer and then taunting, negating the pick and giving Illinois 30 yards in penalties.
The Illini took advantage with a one-yard touchdown run by Epstein six plays later to tie it up at 9-9 with 2:51 left in the half.
Nebraska had a chance to take a halftime lead when Myles Farmer recovered a fumble at the NU 39 with 58 seconds remaining. Instead, Martinez was sacked and fumbled it right back, and Calvin Hart Jr. scooped it up for a 41-yard score to make it 16-9 going into the half.
Things didn’t get any better in the second half for Nebraska. Illinois methodically churned out a 14-play, 75-yard drive that ate up 8:04 off the clock and ended with a two-yard touchdown pass from Sitkowski to Luke Ford to start the third quarter.
The Huskers’ offense gave the ball right back to Illinois after a three-and-out and short punt at midfield. Sitkowski hit Deuce Spann down the left sideline for a gorgeous 45-yard pass down to the 1-yard line.
Isaiah Williams walked it in from there to push the Illini lead up to a commanding 30-9 with 4:01 left in the third quarter.
Finally, Nebraska came up with an answer when Martinez broke free for a 75-yard scramble for a touchdown on the very next play to get it back to two scores. The defense then got the stop, and NU took over at its 21.
But it wasn’t until 2:41 left in the game that NU could cut into the deficit again. Martinez found Oliver Martin for a four-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal, but it took 19 plays and 6:42 to finish the drive.
Even worse, Culp missed his second extra point of the day to leave the Huskers down 30-22.
The defense got the ball back with 54 seconds for a chance to tie, but Martinez’s fourth-down heave fell incomplete to seal the defeat.
Nebraska will host Fordham for its home opener next Saturday for an 11 a.m. CT kick on Big Ten Network.