“It was not a good performance from anybody.”
Nebraska (1-3) coach Scott Frost didn’t mince words following the 41-23 loss to Illinois (2-3) Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
“I didn’t really see this coming,” Frost said after the game. “I was embarrassed by our level of execution in all three phases.”
The lack of execution began on the first play from scrimmage for the Huskers. Luke McCaffrey, who got the nod to start at quarterback for the second consecutive game, scrambled to his left and threw a low, incomplete pass that was picked up by Illinois. The officials ruled it to be a lateral and and turnover.
Referee John O’Neill told the Associated Press’s Eric Olson what happened on the play from an officiating perspective.
“The covering official ruled it a backward pass,” O’Neill said. “The play was reviewable, but we didn’t have a camera with a shot right down the line of scrimmage. The replay official let it stand because there would have been no indisputable evidence.”
A replay from the FOX College Football Twitter account, shown below, would seem to contradict the idea of no camera angle to review the play.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) November 21, 2020
“I thought it was a pass, but I can’t make a critical error like that,” McCaffrey said of the play. “If something’s there I probably should have just ran that and got what I could. I got stuck trying to make a play and you can’t try and make plays. You just have to do your job.”
After a penalty on Nebraska to start the Illinois drive, the Illini easily covered the 16 yards for the first score of the game.
The Huskers answered with a 12 play, 75 yard drive that included McCaffrey completing all three of his pass attempts for 22 yards while adding 29 rushing yards and a touchdown. Marvin Scott III got the start at running back and ran four times on the drive for 20 yards.
Illinois then converted two third downs while marching 75 yards to retake the lead at 14-7 with 5:33 to go in the first quarter. The Huskers never threatened from there.
“We didn’t get as many hats to the ball on defense. We made mistakes over and over on offense. We made mistakes on special teams,” Frost said.
The lack of hats to the ball on defense allowed Illinois to rack up 490 yards of offense and convert 11 of 17 third downs. The mistakes on offense were magnified by three McCaffrey interceptions to go with his first play fumble and a fumble lost by Wan’Dale Robinson. And special teams had multiple penalties and gave up a fourth down conversation that the Illinois punter easily converted with a 14 yard run on the first drive of the third quarter.
That fourth down conversion ruined a three-and-out that the Blackshirts desperately need, trailing 28-10 at the break. Instead, Illinois ran off 6:31 of clock and added three more points.
Nebraska, meanwhile, had six total second half points through the first three games. That was eclipsed on the next Husker drive as McCaffrey added his second rushing touchdown of the game to close the gap to 31-17.
But Illinois would tack on another touchdown and a field goal to make the lead insurmountable for an inconsistent Husker offense. Adrian Martinez entered the game for the final drive, completing three passes for 43 yards and a touchdown while also running for 13 yards. A two-point conversion was converted, but offensive pass interference was called on Nebraska. The next attempt failed, as did the onside kick.
Illinois ran out the clock for the 41-23 victory.
This is only the second victory for Illinois over Nebraska since the Huskers joined the Big Ten, and the first win for Illinois in Lincoln since 1924.
Nebraska hasn’t won back to back conference games since 2018.
“We’ve got plenty of talent right now to compete in every game,” Frost said. “But in order to win the games, you’ve got to do a lot more right than we did today.”
Energy, enthusiasm, and execution continue to be pointed to as lacking for the Huskers, now in year three of the Frost Era. That wasn’t the case when the head coach was just No. 7 for the Huskers, when Big Red lost just two games and won the 1997 national championship.
“I would die to go back and play one more game in Memorial Stadium,” Frost said. “Nobody had to tell me to be fired up to play. I would give anything to go play one more time on that turf. I didn’t see it coming, but I feel like we were lackadaisical today. Coach (Tom) Osborne told us before every game that the team that is most physical is going to win. The team that plays better on special teams is going to win, and the team that wins the turnover battle is going to win. We did that last week.
“We got beat physically today. We turned the ball over, and we certainly didn’t win on special teams. We’ll keep preaching that until the kids understand it and we get it done.”
McCaffrey finished the game throwing 15-for-26 for 134 yards while adding team-highs with 26 rushing attempts and 122 yards.
Wan’Dale Robinson led the receivers with 60 yards. He also had seven carries for 60 yards.
The Nebraska offense totaled 392 yards.
Bigger than the game, senior linebacker and captain Collin Miller left on a stretcher in the second half after making a tackle. Frost said the initial prognosis is positive.
“He’s been the heart and soul of our football team,” Frost said. “Right now, cautiously optimistic that everything looks good. From what I hear, he’s got feeling everywhere, full range of motion, movement and the preliminary examination looks pretty good.
“Our prayers are with him.”
Nebraska goes on the road next for the annual Black Friday game with Iowa (3-2). Kickoff for that game is set for noon.
- The Illinois win ended a four-game Nebraska win streak in the series and marked just the second win in 11 tries for Illinois in Lincoln, including its first in a Big Ten game. Nebraska now leads the all-time series with Illinois 13-4-1.
- Quarterback Luke McCaffrey rushed 26 times for 122 yards and two touchdowns. McCaffrey had 20 carries for 93 yards in the first half. It marked McCaffrey’s his first career 100-yard rushing game, and he is the 100th Husker player in school history to record a 100-yard rushing game.
- McCaffrey’s 26 rushing attempts were just four shy of the Nebraska record for rushing attempts by a quarterback (Jammal Lord, 30 carries at Texas A&M, 2002).
- Tight end Austin Allen caught a career-high five passes for a career-best 43 yards. It marked the fourth straight game Allen has had 25 receiving yards or more. He is the first Husker tight end with 25 receiving yards or more in four straight games since Kyler Reed, who had at least 25 receiving yards in six straight games in the 2010 season.
- True freshman running back Marvin Scott made his first career start in today’s game. Scott carried the ball eight times for 22 yards in the first half.
- Place-kicker Connor Culp connected on a 28-yard field goal in the second quarter and has made four consecutive field goals and 7-of-8 this season.
- Senior linebacker Will Honas had an 8-yard sack in the second quarter for his team-leading third sack of the 2020 season. Honas finished with a team-high 10 tackles, his second consecutive double-figure tackle game.
- Nebraska’s -5 turnover margin was its worst since also having a -5 turnover margin at Purdue in 2015.
Feature Image Courtesy Nebraska Athletics Communications Office