Midway through the second quarter, Nebraska had the advantage on a top-20 ranked team.
The Huskers hadn’t started out perfect against No. 17 Illinois. They allowed an opening possession touchdown and Casey Thompson threw an interception on his first drive. Nebraska also had some lucky breaks, such as the Illini missing an extra point and moving themselves out of field goal range.
However, interim head coach Mickey Joseph’s team worked its way to a 9-6 lead with the ball after throwing a 56-yard touchdown and forcing a three-and-out.
The positive momentum wavered then crumbled completely on the next drive. A dropped ball for a big gain and a rush for negative yardage brought up third-and-long.
Thompson readied to throw on that play, only to be harshly met by an Illinois defensive lineman running straight at him. The ball fluttered up and into the arms of defensive back Sydney Brown, who returned it to the Huskers’ 11-yard line.
In addition to the turnover, Thompson stayed down on the field, favoring his throwing arm.
The turnover set up a touchdown from Chase Brown — Sydney’s brother — to retake the lead, and the injury left the offense in the hands of backups Logan Smothers and Chubba Purdy. The Huskers couldn’t recover from either shift, making Thompson’s throw and subsequent exit the Play of the Game.
Thompson stood up momentarily after the play before sitting back down. He walked off the field under his own power, visiting the medical tent and locker room before returning to watch the second half from the sidelines.
“(Thompson) got jammed on the elbow and he kind of hit the nerve and he couldn’t feel his fingers, his hand was numb,” Joseph said postgame.
Joseph said the quarterback is currently day-to-day, and he’ll know more about the severity of the injury in the coming days.
The Husker offense wasn’t playing especially well to begin with, but it fell apart without Thompson. Smothers came in on the next possession, starting off with a screen pass to Trey Palmer for a yard and an eight-yard rush. Nebraska ran a similar run play for Smothers on third-and-short, and he was stuffed. Illinois drove down to get in the end zone again before half. Joseph said he wasn’t expecting such a stark shift in momentum.
“We thought we were in a good place after Casey went down,” he said. “I was surprised that it got away that quick.”
The 11-point halftime differential was less than the Huskers faced at the intermission of a win against Rutgers and a close loss against Purdue. This time, though, Thompson was unavailable and Nebraska faced an even stronger defense.
Chubba Purdy started the second half instead of Smothers, a decision Joseph said was made due to the passing ability of the former with the team facing a two-score deficit. Still, his biggest plays were made with his feet. Purdy opened by completing a pass to Anthony Grant, then ran for a first down. He took off again on the next play, gaining just two yards but drawing another 15 when an Illini defender hit him after he slid.
Then, the Huskers started throwing. Purdy’s first-down pass attempt was nearly intercepted, and the next fell well short of a receiver. Nebraska ran it on third-and-15 from its own 47-yard line, setting up a punt.
The offense was gifted a short field soon after due to an Illinois fumble, but the backup couldn’t take advantage. Purdy and Palmer couldn’t connect on a screen, then the quarterback ran for no gain. On third down, he threw an interception directly to Sydney Brown while being pressured toward the sideline, ending the team’s shot at points.
Nebraska was still in range down 14, but the next drives ended with a third-down pass to Chancellor Brewington for no gain and a Grant fumble. The Illini turned that final turnover into a field goal that put the score at 26-9 with over 11 minutes to go, a difference insurmountable for the Husker offense.
Purdy finished the game completing three of his eight passes for 15 yards and an interception, while Smothers added one more yard with his single completion. The Huskers had 219 yards in the first half, and just 29 in the second.
Thompson’s availability will be something to watch for the team moving forward as well, but against Illinois, the play which forced his absence lessened whatever chance the Huskers had at a win.