With 12 seconds of time elapsed on the game clock, Nebraska fumbled the ball away for its first turnover of the day.
With halftime looming, social media was calling for another quarterback change. Had there been a sea of red in the stands inside Memorial Stadium, we’d have heard boos.
With time left to play in the third quarter, Illinois had scored more points on the recently-Blackshirted Huskers than it had in the previous two weeks combined.
When it was all said and done, Nebraska walked off the field, tail between its legs, after being whipped by a 1-3 Illinois team (now 2-3) that hadn’t scored more than 24 points in a game all year. A 41-23 loss drops Nebraska to 1-3 on the season.
Where to begin with this one?
Sure, the fumble charged to quarterback Luke McCaffrey on the game’s first play from scrimmage should have been reviewed. It was a questionable call on the field, and replay should have triggered at least a second look at things.
Illinois scored three plays later to take a 7-0 lead.
But a weird start on a grey afternoon likely won’t excuse the level of play that ensued from a Husker team that continues to claim things are on the right track.
Nebraska handed out the Blackshirts this week following a 30-23 win over Penn State. The defense looked like it had rounded a corner. On Saturday, it looked like they’d turned around and sprinted back the other way.
Illinois ran for 5.7 yards per run.
It had 13 chunk plays, five of which gained 25 yards or more (and two of which gained 35 and 58 on the ground alone).
It went 11-for-17 on third down, continuing a trend the Huskers would like to soon end. Nebraska entered the day trailing only Illinois in the Big Ten in opponent conversion rate on the money down. And Illinois was in third-and-manageable all day (average distance to the marker was 3.9 yards).
On the other side, Nebraska’s offense looked just as ghastly.
McCaffrey drew his second start of his career. On the heels of a game that wasn’t great statistically but was propped up all week by the coaching staff, McCaffrey looked like he had no interest in throwing downfield.
Receivers ran open all throughout the first half and McCaffrey opted to use his legs. He had 20 runs after 30 minutes. Starting running back Dedrick Mills wasn’t available, and his backup, Marvin Scott III, drew the start in his place but carried the ball only eight times.
It was McCaffrey run, Wan’Dale Robinson run, or McCaffrey hitting his man underneath.
And when he did take a shot deep, to an open wideout Levi Falck down the sideline, he let the ball hang and it was undercut for his second interception of the day.
Mind you, all this came in the first half. The game was over at halftime.
Nebraska couldn’t get the necessary stops in the second half to make up ground. The defense opened with what it thought was going to be a three-and-out, and then Illinois pulled off the most bizarre fake punt in some time to extend the drive.
It ended with only a field goal, but it spanned 16 plays and nearly seven minutes of game clock.
Thanks to a brilliant run from Robinson that set the offense up with first-and-goal from the 1-yard-line, Nebraska got its first touchdown of the second half all year. But it immediately gave up a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive from Illinois and then fumbled the ball away on its next offensive possession.
The lost fumble marked the fourth turnover of the game. Nebraska finished with five after McCaffrey was picked off throwing for six midway through the fourth. NU had four turnovers against Illinois a year ago as well. It at least got one back in 2019. The defense had no takeaways Saturday.
Even if it did, it might not have made much of a difference.
McCaffrey finished the game 15-for-26 for 134 yards throwing it (no scores, three picks). He ran for 122 yards on 26 carries. Robinson added seven rushes for 60 yards and six catches for 60 yards.
Adrian Martinez replaced McCaffrey late in the fourth quarter and led a touchdown drive that went 54 yards in seven plays and 1:58, capped by a touchdown strike to Falck from four yards out.
Illinois scored 40 points in a Big Ten game for the first time since Nov. 3, 2018. Before Saturday, the Illini hadn’t won back-to-back road games in league play since 2007.
Nebraska returns to action on Friday, Nov. 27, when it faces Iowa on the road for the programs’ annual Black Friday clash. The Hawkeyes are 2-2 entering Saturday’s action.