Nebraska linebacker Luke Reimer chased Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito upfield. With no lingering traces of the injury that kept him out against Purdue, Reimer closed in at the boundary and shoved DeVito short of a first down. Except the junior was still a step behind. Out came the flags for a late hit and Reimer, carried into the sidelines by his momentum, was pinned against equipment boxes on the Illinois sidelines with the No. 17 team in the country bearing down. He tried to make a play and errored instead. Then he was overwhelmed. There was nothing he could do.
Reimer’s late hit tacked 15 yards and first down on the end of a 16-yard run across midfield. The defense rallied to force a 36-yard field goal and salvage a two-possession game. But with quarterback Casey Thompson knocked out of the game, two possessions was insurmountable. Thompson watched helplessly from the sidelines as the Husker managed 35 yards over the last 38 minutes, 29 seconds of Saturday’s game at Memorial Stadium. No. 17 Illinois (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten) scored the final 20 points during that stretch for a 26-9 win, handing Nebraska (3-5, 2-3) its 20th consecutive loss against a ranked opponent.
Nebraska’s top two backup quarterbacks have game experience this season. Chubba Purdy’s been the go-to option when Thompson needs to regroup or in garbage time and Logan Smothers delivered a run-based change of pace in the season opener against Northwestern. Smothers stepped in first before Purdy’s second half. Neither sparked any offense.
“I thought we were in a good place when Casey went down,” interim head coach Mickey Joseph said. “When Casey went down, threw the pick, I was surprised it got away from us that quick.”
With Thompson at quarterback the Huskers were a powder keg surrounded by matches. He threw an interception on the first drive intended for Trey Palmer at the Illinois 18 but not before gaining 44 yards. After a 5-yard 3-and-out came a 73-yard scoring drive, spurred on by Chancellor Brewington’s 45-yard catch and run to the Illinois 16. The Huskers settled for a 26-yard Timmy Bleekrode field goal and reloaded for their next possession. Thompson stepped into the pocket and threaded a pass to tight end Travis Vokolek. The senior outran every defender to complete the 56-yard touchdown score. This was it — a Nebraska team finally reaching its potential and leaving the doldrum days of losing “the big one” behind.
Then Thompson went down. With 8:29 left in the second quarter the junior stepped into a throw as he was hit. Illinois linebacker Seth Coleman’s arm hit Thompson’s bicep and his helmet collided with the breast plate of the quarterback’s shoulder pads. Lineman Jer’Zhan Newton jumped into the collision for good measure. Thompson’s wounded throw wobbled into the air and Illinois safety Sydney Brown eagerly waited so he could return it to the Nebraska 11. The quarterback sat straight up holding his arm. He’d endured sacks, knockdowns, hits on rare scrambles and blocks on interception returns throughout the first seven games and always got back up. This time he couldn’t.
“It’s always next-man-up mentality for any position,” cornerback Quinton Newsome said afterwards. “We’ve got faith in Logan and Chubba, we see them guys every day.”
Smothers, the sophomore, initially took over and finished the half in Thompson’s absence. His mobility provides offensive variety. He got 6 yards on one drive and a kneel into halftime.
“I didn’t see Casey until, really, halftime, I didn’t see what was going on,” sophomore guard Ethan Piper said. “For me, I just heard Logan (Smothers) was playing that next drive for us and it was next man up. We practice it all the time. If someone goes down we have the QBs ready to go.”
Illinois immediately pushed Nebraska’s defense back 10 yards and then the remaining 1 for the go-ahead touchdown from the nation’s leading rusher Chase Brown. That followed a 46-yard touchdown pass from Timmy DeVito to Isaiah Williams on the opening drive where Williams went in motion, caught a drag route going the opposite way over the middle and simply outran the defense to the corner. With the ball before halftime, Brown was left wide open for a 12-yard touchdown catch on a wheel route that DeVito delivered with Garrett Nelson breathing down his neck. That score extended the Illini’s lead to 20-9 with 27 seconds left. The Huskers trotted into the locker room down 11 points and a starting quarterback.
“Anywhere around the country is between No. 1 and No. 2 there’s going to be a big gap,” Joseph admitted about his team’s quarterback situation afterwards. “I think there’s a gap between them.”
Joseph wasn’t sure the full extent of Thompson’s injury after the game. Thompson told coaches he got hit in the elbow and couldn’t feel his fingers. He’s considered day to day until a doctor’s exam on Sunday.
Chubba Purdy, the go-to backup in Thompson’s stead throughout the year, took over at quarterback in the second half.
“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.”
Purdy and the receivers couldn’t find any rhythm beyond shovel passes 2 yards apart. Then the redshirt freshman evaded would-be tacklers on a third-quarter rollout. He fired back towards the middle of the field. Waiting, once again, was Illinois team captain Sydney Brown. It was almost an inevitability. A young player with a spot to shine at a program trying to turn the corner. He aimed for the moon and instead threw it to a star on the nation’s best defense.
Standout running back Anthony Grant made a similar mistake early in the fourth quarter. He’d gotten a few handoffs in the second half that didn’t go far enough. He knew Nebraska needed a spark down two scores. He wanted to be that catalyst like he was in the first month of the season. Instead the ball came out and Illinois jumped on it at the Nebraska 25. His turnaround day hit the artificial turf of Tom Osborne Field and Illinois extended its lead to three possession with a 41-yard field goal. The Husker offense couldn’t do anything on the next drive and punted on 4th and 4 form their own 25. Husker fans booed before heading for the exists.
Nebraska’s defense forced more stops but the offense managed 1 yard on its three final drives. The Huskers hit the locker room after the final whistle to sections of exposed bleachers.