Nebraska returned home to Memorial Stadium on Saturday after a few weeks away, but it didn’t come with a victory. The Huskers fell to the No. 17 Illinois Fighting Illini, 26-9.
With a little time to have now absorbed what we saw in Nebraska’s loss, it’s time to review. Here is the good, the bad and the unexpected from Saturday.
Travis Vokolek’s Touchdown: Hey, you’ve got to give it up for tight end Travis Vokolek. The senior had a 56-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter, which is the longest reception of his collegiate career. It was also Nebraska’s longest passing touchdown of the season by someone not named Trey Palmer—although Palmer still holds two of the longest ahead of him—and Vokolek’s second career touchdown at Nebraska.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) October 29, 2022
Defense: Take this with the biggest grain of salt—mostly because Illinois was able to consistently run its offense against Nebraska—but the defense didn’t have an awful day overall. In fact, if you’re looking for something “good” to point to, the defense as a unit did its job. Defensive back Quinton Newsome spoke to that after the game.
“I feel like the defense played well as a unit. We just have to eliminate the big plays and wrap up, get guys to the ground and swarm to the ball more,” Newsome said. “I think we played good but we could play better.”
Luke Reimer returned after missing the Purdue game, boasting a game-high nine tackles. He was destined to be his own category for good until that late hit out of bounds. Marques Buford and Myles Farmer each had seven tackles of their own. Nickel Isaac Gifford sacked Illinois quarterback Timmy DeVito.
It’s one of those things where you could say the defense was good, but . . . We just don’t have a category for that.
Casey Thompson’s Injury: Nebraska’s starting quarterback is “day-to-day” following an injury that left his right hand numb, according to interim head coach Mickey Joseph.
Thompson was injured in the second quarter on a play in which he had thrown an interception and was hit by a number of Illinois defenders. It was difficult to see exactly what happened in the moment, but Thompson appeared to go down on his throwing arm. As he got up, he instead sat back down and stared at his right hand.
“He got jammed on the elbow and I think it kind of hit the nerve and he couldn’t feel his fingers,” Joseph said post-game. “His hand was numb.”
While Thompson returned to the field in full uniform after halftime, he never returned to action. And while Logan Smothers initially took over for Thompson in the first half (two possessions), it was Chubba Purdy that played the remainder of the game in the second half (six possessions).
Here’s the issue with that: Smothers and Purdy combined for just 34 total yards and zero points over their eight possessions (which was made up of 23 total plays). The Huskers managed just three first downs and averaged only 1.6 yards per play with Smothers and Purdy.
Thompson, on the other hand, had helped Nebraska to 214 yards and nine points by his departure.
“When Casey went down, we still thought we were in a good place,” Joseph said. “But I was surprised it got away that quick from us.”
What’s perplexing more than anything though is how the backup quarterback position was handled. While Smothers took over for Thompson in the first half, Purdy was the guy out of halftime and for the rest of the game.
“We wanted to go with Logan because we thought we were going to run some option but then we figured we’d have to throw it to get back in it so we went with Chubba,” Joseph said. “We talked about (going back to Logan in the second half) but we thought we had to throw it so we stuck with Chubba.”
As for how that looks in the future? It’ll depend on offensive coordinator Mark Whipple.
“I am confident in (Smothers), but I think that if Whipple wants to go with Chubba because Chubba throws it a little better then let’s go with Chubba,” Joseph said. “But we will have to take it from here because we do not know what is going to go on with Casey, so it is a possibility you will see both.”
Run game: It was something Nebraska wanted to improve upon over the bye week, specifically with running back Anthony Grant.
“You know, we want to throw the football, we want to throw the football, but we got to get Anthony going this week,” Joseph said earlier in the week. “We got to get him, we got to get a running game going this week.”
The Huskers, however, did not get it going in the run game. Nebraska had 60 net yards rushing against Illinois, which was a season low. The Huskers had hit the 100-yard rushing mark in every game this season except for against Illinois and Rutgers. That one against the Scarlet Knights was a 72-yard rushing day.
It is worth noting though that Grant did hold his own against Illinois on Saturday. By halftime, Grant had 34 yards on six carries. He finished the day with 61 yards on 12 carries. Not bad, especially when you consider how things were going for the Nebraska offense in the second half. The run game wasn’t great, but the Huskers at least stayed committed to trying to make it work.
Trey Palmer: The question leading into the week was what would Nebraska do if an opposing team took wide receiver Trey Palmer out of the game? Heading into Saturday’s matchup, the junior led the nation in receiving yards, tallying 781 yards and five touchdowns for Nebraska.
“If they try to take Trey away, there’s nothing we can do about it,” Joseph said on Tuesday. “But the other guys know that they have to play football if that happens.”
Palmer finished the day against Illinois with just the one catch for 1 yard. Other players—like Vokolek—stepped up, but it wasn’t enough. Palmer is clearly a difference maker so things get dicey when he’s removed from the equation.
It also doesn’t help that the quarterback most comfortable with throwing it “somewhere down there” to Palmer wasn’t available for much of the game to try and execute that game plan.
Offensive line: For what it’s worth, the Nebraska offensive line didn’t allow a sack until its last drive of the game. The downside is that the o-line then allowed Purdy to be sacked twice in the same drive. Part of that was because Nebraska was forced into a situation to run a throw-heavy version of its two-minute offense because of how far behind it was in the game, which made things challenging.
“That’s a hard protection,” offensive lineman Ethan Piper said post-game.
No moral victories, but it’s still worth noting that the offensive line showed some positive signs of growth against Illinois. There are still plenty of areas for improvement—Piper specifically mentioned the need to improve the run game—but it’s a small step in the right direction.
Erin is the Deputy Editor and Digital Marketing Strategist for Hail Varsity. She has covered Nebraska athletics since 2012, which has included stops at Bleacher Report, Cox Media Group’s Land of 10, and even Hail Varsity (previously from 2012-2017). She has also been featured on the Big Ten Network, NET’s Big Red Wrap-Up, and a varsity of radio shows nationwide. When not covering the Huskers, Erin is probably at Chipotle.