There’s no way to spin it: Nebraska’s 30-22 season-opening loss at the hands of Bret Bielema’s Illinois Fighting Illini was a disappointment that put a bad taste in the mouths of Nebraska fans everywhere.
While the final score wasn’t what the Husker faithful wanted, there were still bright spots to be found on the field. You remember Pheldarius Payne’s two sacks, Adrian Martinez’s 75-yard touchdown run and that pretty 43-yard Martinez-to-Oliver Martin reception. Instead of the plays you remember, lets highlight five plays that some may have missed on their first —and for some, only—watch of the game.
Gabe Ervin Jr. picks up the blitz
It’s common for young running backs to struggle in pass protection, but against Illinois Gabe Ervin Jr. showed he’s very capable. Yes, this is a very small sample size—it’s just one play in the first game of the true freshman’s college career, but that doesn’t negate the fact that he meets All-Big Ten linebacker Jake Hansen head-on and keeps him from impacting the play. Martinez is ultimately flushed from the pocket by the Illini rush and throws an incompletion, but Ervin did his job here.
Caleb Tannor de-cleats Alex Palczewski
This was a sight to see live. Outside of those two back-breaking penalties he was flagged for in the second quarter, Caleb Tannor, one of Nebraska’s outside linebackers, enjoyed a very strong day with three tackles and one stop for a loss while creating havoc along the trenches. In the play above, watch how Tannor, who stands 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, bull-rushes Illinois’ right tackle Alex Palczewski to the point where Palczewski gets de-cleated and winds up on his back. Tannor’s play forces Art Sitkowski to step up into the pocket and into the arms of Payne.
Damion Daniels stands his ground
This is what a nose tackle is supposed to do. Damion Daniels was a key part to this second-and-8 stop late in the second quarter. In the play above, watch how the 6-3, 325-pounder holds his ground against the double team of the left guard and left tackle. With Daniels clogging the middle, it allowed the two outside ‘backers—Tannor from the field side and Payne from the boundary— to close in for the tackle. This is the type of play that won’t show up on a stat sheet, but Daniels is the one who makes it possible.
Luke Reimer beating blockers to the ball
Luke Reimer isn’t the biggest linebacker you’re going to see in the Big Ten at 6-1, 225 pounds. But what he lacks in size, he makes up for with speed. He showed what his quickness allows him to do on Saturday as he finished with eight tackles and one forced fumble. On the first play above, watch how Reimer diagnoses the run, shuffles to his right, fends off the left guard looking to climb to ‘backer depth and makes the tackle. On the second play, Reimer can’t be caught by the right guard, Jack Badovinac, and then sheds the block of giant left tackle Vederian Lowe (6-6, 320) for the stop.
Garrett Nelson fends off Ford for tackle
Outside ‘backer Garrett Nelson recorded six stops and 2.5 tackles for a loss against the Illini. The 6-3, 245-pound Scottsbluff, Nebraska, native is known for his passion and motor on the field, and they showed up all over Saturday. On the play above, watch how Nelson wins his one-on-one battle with tight end Luke Ford, who holds the size advantage at 6-6, 260. Nelson used his right arm to keep Ford from getting into his body and met running back Chase Brown at the line of scrimmage, keeping Illinois to only a 2-yard gain.