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Report Card: Illinois Fighting Illini 30, Huskers 22

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I expected more. Shame on me.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 28 Nebraska at Illinois
What. The. (CENSORED!) Is. He. Doing?
Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I expected more.

There, I said it. I used the lack of Big Ten-quality receivers as my explanation as to why Nebraska’s offense regressed from the end of 2018. Once Stanley Morgan headed to the NFL, Nebraska’s receiving corps just wasn’t able to make Frost’s offense click. For all of his heart, Wan’Dale Robinson simply didn’t have the size to take the ball away from bigger corners in coverage downfield, and that meant that the best way to get the ball to our smaller receivers was with lateral swing passes...which twice ended up as disasters in 2020.

So add in 6’3” Samori Toure and 6’4” Omar Manning to the mix, and suddenly, you’ve got receivers who can make plays downfield. That would, in theory, clear out the box and open up the running game.

Well, while Toure did get open a few times today, Illinois found that it was better to simply not worry about Nebraska’s receivers, and simply pressure Adrian Martinez. And except for that one play where Martinez scrambled for an easy 75 yard touchdown, it turned out to be well worth it for Illinois. They overwhelmed Nebraska’s offensive line, negating Nebraska’s running game and forcing Martinez to scramble under pressure, frequently throwing off his back foot. And, of course, a fumble just before halftime that gave the Illini a halftime lead they never surrendered.

The play of the game, of course, was Caleb Tannor’s two penalties for driving Illini backup quarterback Artur Sitkowski into the ground and then taunting, wiping out Cam Taylor-Britt’s interception. So instead of Nebraska ball at mid-field, the Illini had the ball at the NU 24, setting up the game-tying touchdown. The Blackshirts never recovered from that; by the next time the Illini were forced to punt, Illinois had scored four times.

Yep, Nebraska did it again. And now in year four, it’s become Scott Frost’s legacy. The statute of limitations on blaming Mike Riley has expired. But it’s also one game of twelve, so there’s no value in hitting the panic button. Espcially in August. But one thing was clear: Nebraska is a lot further from being ready to play a 13th game after Christmas in 2021 than we had hoped. With that, it’s off with the report card, and as always, your feedback is welcome in the comments.

QB: Adrian Martinez struggled in the first half, getting repeatedly pressured...sacked. And, of course, a fumble returned for the go-ahead touchdown. Twice he overthrew wide-open receivers in the first half...and when you airmail 6’9” Austin Allen, you’ve missed badly. Second half was better, or should I say, not as bad. At this point, you have to simply accept that Martinez isn’t what we hoped he was two years ago. He’s serviceable, as long as you have complementary talent to take the pressure off him... and right now, Nebraska doesn’t seem to have that. Martinez isn’t the reason Nebraska lost to Illinois, but he didn’t help change that result either. Grade: D+

I-Back: The coaches seemed to be happy with what they saw from Gabe Ervin and Markese Stepp during preseason practice; they shouldn’t have been happy about this game. There wasn’t a lot of running room, but none of Nebraska’s backs made much of anything happen. Some thought maybe Sevion Morrison would emerge today, but he never saw game action. And as Nebraska fell behind, the running game was abandoned, which pretty much sealed NU’s fate. Grade: D

Wide Receiver: An inconsistent game at best. Oliver Martin did have a nifty 43 yard catch for the longest downfield catch in nearly two years, but also committed a bad offensive pass interference penalty. Samori Toure had a couple of impressive plays. Omar Manning made a couple of nice catches, and even shifted into the backfield once. Look for something interesting to develop there. But the bunch formations from the Riley era reappeared, and these guys couldn’t get much separation. I’m hoping that video review of this game is going to show the coaching staff guessed badly in planning for this game, instead of the alternative, which is that our receiver corp isn’t much improved. Here’s one positive to take away... no swing passes in this game! Grade: C-

Offensive Line: Last year, Illinois was dead-last in the Big Ten in rushing defense. Did Nebraska regress badly up front, or did Illinois improve tremendously? I suspect the answer is “both.” 19 carries for 55 yards isn’t going to cut it for Nebraska’s backs. Neither is the lack of pass protection. Grade: F

Defensive Line: Early on, this group looked really stout, until the flags flew on Caleb Tannor. More than once, our watching group asked “who’s that 93?” as Damion Daniels made a bunch of plays early on. But as the game went on, the line wore down and Illinois capitalized on it. It started as an “A” performance, but ended up with a grade of C.

Linebacker: Nick Henrich had a quiet 11 tackles, in my opinion, from the middle linebacker spot. Garrett Nelson had a good game early as did Pheldarius Payne at the outside linebacker spots. And we’ve already talked about Tannor. We’ll average things out with a C+.

Secondary: I’m going to give Cam Taylor-Britt the credit for his interception anyway, even if it didn’t count. But at the other corner spot, things were quiet, and with the number of completions that the Illini made, that was an issue. Grade: C-

Special Teams: I’ve neglected this part of the game in my report cards for far too long. We saw definite improvement on kickoffs with Brendan Franke, who put four of five from the 35 yard line into the end zone with five touchbacks. But Connor Culp missed TWO extra points. And Cam Taylor-Britt forgetting the fundamentals (DON’T FIELD A PUNT INSIDE THE TEN YARD LINE!) created the wrong type of Sportscenter moment, creating a net-effect turnover. That’s Nebraska beating itself again. Grade: D-

(Update: A wise observer in the comments pointed that I omitted Daniel Cerni’s punting. It doesn’t change the grade, because I’m not giving an “F” with the improved kickoffs...but suffice it to say that 26 and 19 yard punts are a concern.)

Overall: D- I debated about an overall “F” score, but I thought the defense showed signs of being something very good. Hopefully the next two weeks can allow things to gel a bit, and we’ll start seeing more of what the head coach wants to see. But something has to change, because Nebraska is proving what they are: a stumbling, bumbling football program.

Poll

How would you grade the Huskers for the 30-22 loss to Illinois

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    A - August football is just a bonus anyway
    (36 votes)
  • 0%
    B - Game was blacked out where I was, so I guess it went OK.
    (5 votes)
  • 3%
    C - Could have been better; Bert’s gonna surprise teams this year.
    (42 votes)
  • 23%
    D - Disappointed yet again.
    (294 votes)
  • 70%
    F - Fudge. Another fudging loss to a fudging opponent we should have beaten because of too many fudging screwups.
    (894 votes)
1271 votes total Vote Now

Elsewhere

For week zero, there isn’t much else to bring up, but I’ll touch on two items.

UCLA: A Scott Frost’s mentor looks like he has things rolling finally after pratfall after pratfall. Perhaps there is hope that the student is going to figure things out as well.

Fox Sports: Zero. I understand not wanting to send the “Big Noon Kickoff” crew, but I expected more than a BTN’s “StudentU” or Urbana Public Television cable access channel 6 crew on a broadcast network telecast. Good replays of critical plays were almost non-existent, and the end zone camera operator was never sure which end zone the kicker was going to be aiming at. This rivaled the old FSN 11:30 am telecasts of Big XII games with Artie Gigantino for ineptitude.