Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Bullet Points: Illinois 26 Nebraska 9

October 29, 2022

You can say this, at least, about Nebraska on Saturday: The Huskers were better-than-average in the points department against an Illinois defense that entered Saturday leading the nation at 8.9 points per game allowed. Nebraska managed 9 points, all in the first half while playing the second without its starting quarterback, in a 26-9 loss to the Illini at Memorial Stadium.

Yes, the fact you need a magnifying glass, or supreme partisanship, to accept that as true––which it technically is––is a sign of how things went. The two teams were basically even in yards per play––5.2 for Illinois, 5.1 for Nebraska––but Illinois ran 21 more plays and forced four Husker turnovers in the win.

Illinois (7-1, 4-1) got on the board first, hitting for a 46-yard pass to Isaiah Williams, and missed the extra point, to take a 6-0 lead. The play came on third-and-5, which had been an Illini weakness entering Saturday as they ranked 79th nationally in third-down conversions entering Saturday.

Despite an interception on its first drive, Nebraska (3-5, 2-3) battled back to take a 9-6 lead, the key play a 56-yard touchdown pass from Casey Thompson to tight end Travis Vokolek. The Huskers’ extra-point attempt was blocked.

Things took a turn for the Huskers from there. Thompson threw his second interception of the first half while taking a big hit. It set Illinois up at the Nebraska 11-yard line, a distance it would cover in two plays for a 13-9 lead, but Thompson was ushered back to the locker room as Logan Smothers took over at quarterback. A three-and-out with Smothers behind center led to another Illini touchdown to make it 20-9 at halftime.

The difference was turnovers. Nebraska trailed in total yards at halftime, 225 to 219, but lead in yards per play, 7.6 to 6.2. The Illini turned two Husker interceptions into seven points, and their defense would take over from there.

Chubba Purdy took over at halftime, in place of Smothers, but the Huskers’ drive coming out of the first half faltered after a pair of first downs. Nebraska recovered a fumble on the ensuing drive, but gave momentum right back with its third interception of the game.

Despite only giving up three points to Illinois in the third quarter to keep things at a two-score game, the Huskers’ fourth turnover, a fumble from running back Anthony Grant, proved too much to sustain. The Illini got a field goal out of it, to make it 26-9, and Nebraska never threatened from there.

  • The Illini averaged 4.8 yards per play on first downs in the first half, the Huskers 1.7. That’s a tough deficit against what was, statistically speaking, one of the top defenses in the country and also one that hadn’t had to play from behind much so far this season.
  • Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito, a transfer from Syracuse, started the game 11-for-11 passing. He finally threw incomplete on his 12th attempt, but, one play later, found running back Chase Brown wide open for a 5-yard touchdown reception to give the Illini a two-score lead at halftime.
  • Nebraska only ran the ball 11 times in the first half, minus two sacks, but the Huskers largely maintained their big play ability. Nebraska’s explosive pass rate was 27.7% at half––despite just one catch for 1 yard for wide receiver Trey Palmer––and it’s overall explosive-play rate was 20.7%. Illinois entered the game allowing an explosive play on 10.3% of snaps.
  • Broadly speaking, turnovers are worth about 5 expected points in college football when you consider the exchange of field position. The Huskers were -3 in turnovers in the 17-point loss. It was the thing that couldn’t happen on Saturday and it did.
  • After Thompson’s injury, Nebraska managed just three first downs, averaging 1.6 yards per play. The Huskers only ran 23 plays over the final 36 minutes after Thompson went out.
  • Palmer, who entered the week leading the nation in total receiving yards, would finish the game with just the one catch for 1 yard.
  • The loss was Nebraska’s third straight to Illinois.
  • Vokolek (56 yards), tight end Chancellor Brewington (45) and wide receiver Alante Brown (32) all had career-long receptions on Saturday.
  • Nebraska lost its 20th consecutive game to a ranked opponent. Illinois entered the game at No. 17 in the Associated Press poll.
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