Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Play of the Game: Illinois’ Fumble Return for a Touchdown

August 28, 2021

Nebraska football’s 30-22 loss to Illinois featured many of the same mistakes that have plagued the team in previous seasons. With less than a minute left in the second half, those errors didn’t sink the team, with the score tied 9-9.

Then, Adrian Martinez stepped up in the pocket on third down and was hit from behind. The ball was knocked from his hand and returned for a touchdown by linebacker Calvin Hart Jr. for this week’s Play of the Game. 

This was one of two avoidable, momentum-shifting plays in the quarter. The first was an interception by cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, which was overturned due to a roughing the passer and taunting penalty combo on linebacker Caleb Tannor.

The 30 yards the Fighting Illini earned from that penalty set them up for a game-tying touchdown. 

However, the Husker defense showed an ability to bounce back from that mistake, forcing a fumble on Illinois’ next possession. They did not come back from Martinez’s fumble, however, until it was too late. 

If Martinez hangs on to the ball on the sack, the game likely goes into halftime tied. Instead, the Fighting Illini took the lead, started with the ball after the break and scored again to make it a two-score game. Without that error, the Huskers possibly take the game into overtime. 

When Martinez started to escape the pocket, there wasn’t much room available. If defensive lineman Keith Randolph Jr. doesn’t make the hit from behind, Hart was standing at the line of scrimmage, directly in front of Martinez and ready to make a play. The quarterback held the ball with one hand, and it came out on the hit.

“My fumble at the end of the half, I think that was a big moment for our team,” Martinez said postgame. “Those type of mistakes can’t happen.

“I was stepping up in the pocket and looking to possibly make a move, and getting tackled to the ground … I had one hand on the ball and a guy smacked my arm and the ball fell out.”

A lot of the things that happened in the loss weren’t new. The first score of the day was a safety on an ill-advised punt return attempt. Nebraska missed two extra points. The Huskers even added a bad snap in the second half. Head coach Scott Frost said it looked like “the same movie.” 

In the second half, Nebraska still mounted a comeback attempt, highlighted by a 75-yard from Martinez and a touchdown pass to wide receiver Oliver Martin. While Martinez missed multiple important throws throughout the game and had the fumble, his final statline reflected a decent performance. 

He completed half of his 32 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown, along with 111 yards and a score on the ground. He averaged a team-high 6.5 yards per carry. The defense gave him a small chance to send the game into overtime with what would have been a miraculous drive, but he couldn’t convert.

Martinez held off his fumbling issues for the majority of the contest, but the one time he did lose the ball became the Play of the Game.

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