CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Nebraska ran up 690 yards of offense, held Illinois under 100 yards passing, had a wild special teams performance even by NU standards and found a way to come back from down 14 twice to beat Illinois (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) on the road.
A road losing streak is over. The Huskers (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) are leaving a foreign Memorial Stadium with a 42-38 win.
The Huskers face No. 6 Ohio State (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) next Saturday at home under the lights. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. CT on ABC.
Here are three thoughts from the Big Ten opener.
Nebraska Found a Way
Good teams find a way. I remember the feeling walking off the field in Boulder two weekends ago. Nebraska talked about needing to find that killer instinct. It talked about being able to finish. It didn’t then. Not that the team isn’t mentally tough, but it had a chance to prove without a shadow of a doubt its mettle and it wilted.
Everything went wrong for the Huskers, and I mean everything. But regardless of how bad things looked at times, This road trip leaves me with a very different feeling: Nebraska is a group of warriors.
Cam Taylor-Britt and Brenden Jaimes played through injuries. Maurice Washington tried to do the same. JD Spielman took shot after shot and kept getting back up off the turf.
The defense was put in four sudden-change situations and gave up 21 points out of it, but when the offense found its way into the end zone and needed something from the defense, the defense stepped up. Four Illini drives began because of Nebraska turnovers, on the ones that didn’t, Illinois was held to 4.1 yards per play after the 66-yard touchdown on the second play from scrimmage.
Adrian Martinez was playing so poorly at one point whispers began creeping up asking whether a change was needed to jump-start things. The sophomore responded in a way deserving of some serious praise. He finished the game with 327 passing yards and three scores on 22-of-34 throwing, and another 118 yards rushing on 18 carries (his first 100-yard rushing game of the season). He stood in the pocket for gutsy throws. He took off running with a conviction he hasn’t shown all year, a sort of “I’m getting this yardage and you’re not stopping me” vibe.
The defense was put back on the field with two minutes remaining after the Husker special teams clanked a field goal off the uprights that would have put them up seven. The defense punched the Illini right back off the field after four plays that gained zero yards.
Nebraska ended a game in the victory formation. The Huskers I watched when I first joined this beat might have quit. This team did not. This group found a way to win.
Scott Frost has his first road win as the Husker coach. The eight-game losing streak away from home is over. Nebraska found a way.
Wan’Dale Robinson is a baller. Wan’Dale Robinson knows he’s a baller. Now Illinois knows it.
With Maurice Washington forced to exit the game before halftime and Dedrick Mills being completely ineffective, Nebraska turned to the freshman wideout in the backfield. Robinson finished the game with 27 total touches — 19 runs and eight receptions — and produced his first three touchdowns and his first 100-yard performance (168 total, to be exact).
It’s quickly become apparent the freshman is one of Nebraska’s best options on offense. If the ball isn’t going to wideout JD Spielman (who gets whatever football guy award is out there after an 11-target, seven-catch, 159-yard performance in which he routinely got blasted over the middle of the field) and it isn’t going to running back Maurice Washington, it needs to be in Robinson’s hands.
There was a ton of talk early in the season about Nebraska needing to get more receivers involved, about needing to spread the ball around, about needing to diversify. Rahmir Johnson needs to see the field more. More receivers need to be involved.
Spielman gets the ball, Washington gets the ball, Robinson gets the ball, everyone else works off their scraps. Mills worked best in a relief role Saturday. Spielman showed something you just don’t see from a dude everyday. Washington, while at something like 50% in the first half, was still juking defenders out of their shoes. Robinson basically needs multiple defenders every time to corral him.
This Needs Ironing Out
If what happened in Saturday’s first half happens in the first half next week, Nebraska’s gonna be left for dead at halftime.
Ohio State takes no prisoners. The Buckeyes dropped 76 on Miami (OH) in the tune-up before Nebraska, and you can bet your life savings head coach Ryan Day will have his squad even more locked in to play the Huskers after hearing all offseason about how this Nebraska team was the up-and-comers in the Big Ten. Ohio State will want to make a statement.
Chase Young had two more sacks and two more forced fumbles against the Redhawks. He’s now got seven sacks in four games. The left side of Nebraska’s offensive line looked completely lost throughout the entire first half and the right side has been the weak one to begin the year. Young could quite literally be licking his chops while watching film of this first half.
Justin Fields led an offense that produced 42 points in the second quarter this week. The Buckeyes had six explosive plays. This is a group with weapons all over the field and it’s capable of igniting quickly. I still believe the strength of this Husker team is its defense, but Ohio State starting the way Illinois did would be a death sentence.
All first half, Nebraska killed itself. Illinois did nothing special, but the Huskers constantly shot themselves in the foot. A nice run? Fumble at the end. Big play? Penalty brings it back. One step forward, two steps back. For whatever reason, the offense collectively cannot get out of its own way for long stretches of games.
Nebraska went for 314 yards in the first half but it committed seven penalties and turned it over twice. Self-inflicted wounds against bad teams are kill shots against the great ones.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.