In the weeks leading up to Saturday’s season-opener at conference foe Illinois, Nebraska’s coaching staff didn’t know what to expect from Bret Bielema and his Fighting Illini.
During his pregame press conference last Thursday, head coach Scott Frost said it’s difficult to form a game plan when the team you’re playing is breaking in a new staff.
“I think they’re good coaches, there are good coaches all over this league,” Frost said then. “We’re guessing a little bit as to what they’re going to do, and we’re doing our best to get our guys ready for the game Saturday.”
Saturday came and went. Nebraska trailed 30-9 at one point and, despite a late-game effort, lost 30-22. The Huskers showed the same signs in Champaign that have previously held back improvement that the fanbase desperately wants.
Those signs included penalties and turnovers. Nebraska didn’t necessarily have many of either against Illinois—but the ones they did have hurt badly.
The Huskers were flagged just five times, but two of them—both from outside linebacker Caleb Tannor when he was called for roughing the passer and then taunting on the same play—were absolute backbreakers that totaled 30 yards. Those two flags kept an Illinois drive alive that eventually ended with a 1-yard touchdown run from running back Mike Epstein that tied the game at 9 with 2:51 left before halftime.
Nebraska had just one turnover in the game, but it was a death blow that cost the Huskers seven points. On the ensuing drive following Epstein’s score, Martinez was trying to escape a collapsing pocket, but fumbled as he was dragged down by defensive lineman Keith Randolph before he could slip away. A couple seconds later, linebacker Calvin Hart was scooping-and-scoring from 41 yards.
Just like that, Nebraska was down 16-9 at the break.
“It looked like the same movie today,” Frost said of the mistakes that are all too familiar. “We can’t let it be that way.”
But there was another bad moment that reared its ugly face Saturday. Illinois’ defensive coordinator Ryan Walters guided a defense that held Nebraska to 160 yards rushing. But if you take away one play—Martinez’s 75-yard touchdown—the Huskers were at 99 yards on the ground. The running backs gained a total of 54 yards on 19 carries, a measly average of 2.8 yards per carry.
Walters, who was the d-coordinator at Missouri from 2018–20, surprised Frost, who admitted as much after the game.
“It was all a guessing game for us,” he said. “Bret’s been a bunch of places, their d-coordinator has been places. Our best guess was they were going to be a lot like what they were at Missouri and the spring game, and they weren’t.”
Nebraska tight end Austin Allen echoed what Frost said. Allen, expected to be a key piece in the blocking and passing game this season, had just two catches for 23 yards.
“You don’t really know what you’re going to get,” Allen said. “They came out in an even front, I think we were expecting a little bit more odd (front). It just took maybe a series or two to refocus to what we did three weeks ago in fall camp against an even front.”
Offensive adjustments didn’t seem to come or work, either. The Husker ground game, aside from Martinez scrambles and his 75-yarder, never got on track.
That clearly ticked off center Cam Jurgens, the leader of the offensive line.
“I think early on we needed to find that run game a lot quicker,” Jurgens said. “So we went to the pass and weren’t ready for it, but we need to get that run game going a lot faster.”
Illinois and its staff had the benefit of watching three season’s worth of tape on Nebraska’s offense. The Huskers didn’t have that luxury for this version of Bielema’s Illinois, and were surprised.
Now Nebraska starts its season 0-1 with FCS opponent Fordham coming to town for an 11 a.m. kickoff on Saturday.
For Jurgens, the next step is clear.
“Just have to wipe it and move forward.”