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Illinois Coach Lovie Smith On Sidelines at Nebraska Football Game
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Play of the Game: Illinois’ Fake Punt

November 21, 2020

Saturday’s loss to Illinois was a beatdown from start to finish. In a game like that, this piece becomes very difficult. There are no highlights worth celebrating and there aren’t any game-changing plays.

That being said, there is one play that encapsulates where Nebraska is as a program right now, and it’s one that caught Twitter’s attention. This week’s Play of the Game is Illinois’ fake punt early in the second half.

Things couldn’t have gone much worse in the first half, leading to a 28-10 lead at halftime. The Illini got the ball to start the third quarter, setting the stage for things to get even worse. However, the defense showed some fight, forcing an incomplete pass, limiting a run to 3 yards then blowing up a screen for a loss of one.

On fourth and 8, Illinois lined up in punt formation. Except Blake Hayes didn’t end up punting the ball.

Who knows what Movie Smith told his punter. It certainly doesn’t look like this was a designed fake. But when Hayes caught the ball, Phalen Sanford was the only Husker who didn’t immediately peel back to set up blocking for the return.

With two blockers to take care of the lone Husker, Hayes hesitated then decided to start moving forward. He followed the blocker on his right, hesitated despite having no one in black in front of him, then cut it back while the other blocker sealed off Sanford.

Three yards downfield, Hayes inexplicably stutter-stepped with the nearest defender 15 yards away before continuing on his way. He eventually ducked out of bounds at the 45-yard line. Instead of a punt, the Huskers gave up 14 yards.

Eleven plays later, Illinois kicked a short field goal to take a 31-10 lead. In total, the drive chewed up 6:31 in a game where the Huskers trailed by three scores. And it was entirely preventable.

I’ve spent almost every Friday the past couple of months on the side line at a high school football game, and every time a team drops back to punt there’s somebody on the sideline screaming “Watch the fake!” Yet somehow, there wasn’t enough discipline on the field or sideline to make sure Nebraska had someone covering a potential fake.

The fake punt is another in a long line of examples of Nebraska shooting itself in the foot. The Huskers did something positive (three straight successful plays on defense) and immediately gave it up by failing to get off the field.

The Twitter attention was focused mostly on the Illinois punter, but Nebraska caught plenty of other jokes on social media. “Nebraska begged to be able to play for THIS?” Will be a consistent theme so long as these games continue to happen; the only way to shut them up is to start winning.

For every step forward, Nebraska takes an even bigger step back. That is the identity of this program right now.

That’s why Illinois’ fake punt and fourth-down conversion is this week’s Play of the Game.

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