Nothing is ever as good or as bad as it seems. A casual onlooker might see Nebraska’s stat line from their “win” over Illinois on Saturday and have a few questions. The first would surely be how Illinois managed to score 38 points. Nebraska dominated the game in nearly every category. They posted nearly 700 yards of total offense. Illinois didn’t quite crack 300. They had 32 first downs to Illinois’s 14. The Cornhuskers held the ball for 37:04, nearly two thirds of the game. So why was this a 4-point game when the clock hit zero?
As Nebraska learned once again Saturday night, you can’t give the ball to the other team and expect to win games. Nebraska entered Memorial Stadium in Champaign as a two-score favorite. As Illinois ran in their third touchdown early in the second quarter, Nebraska found themselves in a two-score hole.
Over the course of the game, Nebraska lost fumbles at their own 37, 2, 36, and 14 yard lines, and Illinois scored on three of the ensuing drives. Nebraska posted a -3 turnover margin on Saturday, intercepting just one pass from Illinois’s QB Brandon Peters. In 2019, Nebraska has now fumbled 13 times, losing the ball 9 times. They currently rank 130th in fumbles lost; dead last among FBS teams.
A Tale As Old As Time
Entering this game, Nebraska’s defense was allowing just 2.2 yards per carry on the ground. While that was great, they also had yet to face a strong rushing attack. On just the second play of the game, Illinois RB Reggie Corbin took advantage of a huge hole on the edge and rocketed down the field for a touchdown. All pride in the rushing defense evaporated almost instantly as Husker fans prepared themselves for more of the same story. But then something exciting happened, and it likely went unnoticed amidst the rest of the game’s frustrations. The defense settled in and held Illinois to 4 ypc for the rest of the game. That’s a full ypc less than they averaged last season. The defense is not as good as they seemed through three games, nor as bad as they seemed on that first long run by Corbin. They are, however, much better than they were last year.
Offensive Struggles Return
After firing on all cylinders a week ago, the offense looked shaky to open the game. Martinez missed easy passes, the high snaps from week 1 returned, and the run game was hit or miss. Nebraska’s first drive went 51 yards, mostly on a 41 yard catch by JD Spielman, before a failed 4th down conversion. In their next 5 drives, Nebraska scored once, but fumbled twice and punted twice. They ended the half with two sustained drives, scoring once more and punting with 1:32 left to play.
Nebraska went 3-and-out to open the second half, and Illinois scored on their following possession to take a 28-14 lead. Husker fans settled in for what looked to be a blowout. Their team didn’t. Nebraska scored on 4 of their next 6 possessions and held the Fighting Illini to 10 points. The Huskers did something they hadn’t been able to manage yet in the Frost Era. They snapped an eight game losing streak on the road. After special teams missed a field goal that would have put them up by a touchdown with 2:03 left, Nebraska’s defense forced a turnover on downs to close the game. They finally finished.
Nebraska fans finally saw the Wan’Dale Robinson we’ve been waiting for. The true freshman exploded in the game against Illinois, scoring 3 times and racking up 186 all-purpose yards. JD Spielman caught 7 balls for 159 yards. TE Jack Stoll caught 3 passes for 45 yards and a touchdown. Maurice Washington rushed for 89 yards on 10 touches in the first half. Dedrick Mills had 62 yards on the ground and a pair of touchdowns. Best of all, Adrian Martinez had a career day, passing for 327 yards and 3 touchdowns and adding 118 yards on the ground. Martinez now leads the B1G in yards per game and passing yards.
The defense was not as bad as the 38 points allowed might suggest. Illinois drove the length of the field for touchdowns just twice, once at the beginning of each half. On the four drives after Nebraska fumbles, Illinois’ average starting field position was on the edge of the redzone. On one of those drives, the defense turned them back, forcing Illinois off the field. The defense forced seven 3-and-outs, picked Peters off once, and made a huge 4th down stop to end the game.
We’re Coming To Your City
Nebraska needs to clean up that first half mess quickly. Next week, Ohio State comes to town looking as good as they ever have. The Buckeyes are averaging over 50 points a game and holding opponents under 10. They’re fresh off a 76-5 victory over Miami (OH) in which they scored 7 times in the 2nd quarter. Their offense looks unstoppable, their defense is night-and-day better than last year, and they look like sure-fire championship game material.
If Nebraska wants to make this game competitive, they need to play a perfect game. Both teams have shown that they can be explosive and efficient, but OSU has done it far more consistently. If Nebraska can’t win the turnover battle outright this week, it could be a long game.
Ohio State 49, Nebraska 28
Christian is a co-host of Between The Numbers, a weekly podcast recapping the best college football news from around the country and offering smokin’ hot takes.
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