Nebraska’s 42-38 victory over Illinois was yet another rollercoaster game for Husker fans. The team turned the ball over four times in the game, needing a 14-point second half comeback to come out with the win.
Here are five takeaways from the game:
Ball security must improve
With Nebraska’s offense out-gaining Illinois’ 690 yards to 299, it’s hard to believe the Huskers only squeezed out a four-point win.
The reason the Illini were able to keep the game so close was four Nebraska fumbles in the first three quarters of the game. All four fumbles came in Nebraska territory, and 21 of Illinois’ 38 points came off turnovers. The Husker defense let up the most points they have all year, partly because they were repeatedly put in bad situations by the offense.
Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez fumbled on Nebraska’s second drive of the game, losing the ball during an option play. Martinez lost another fumble in the third quarter after he was hit while trying to throw. Martinez has struggled to hold on to the ball this year as he has five fumbles through four games, including four lost fumbles.
The rest of the Huskers had ball security struggles as well. Junior running back Dedrick Mills and junior wideout JD Spielman also lost fumbles in the second and third quarter, respectively. As a team, Nebraska has put the ball on the ground 13 times through four games, losing nine of those fumbles.
The offense has looked more and more explosive by the week, but ball security will be important as conference play continues. If the Huskers can’t hold onto the ball, they likely won’t be able to win against better Big Ten teams.
Wan’Dale Robinson is really, really good
Through three games, Robinson had shown flashes of the player he could be. Husker fans were waiting for the freshman to have a breakout game, and he delivered against Illinois.
The former 4-star was one of the biggest reasons Nebraska was able to come back and win. Robinson had eight receptions for 79 yards and two touchdowns along with 19 carries for 89 yards and another score.
He scored the first touchdown of his Husker career midway through the second quarter, catching a short pass and juking out an Illinois defender to score a touchdown. He capped off his night by running in the go-ahead touchdown from one yard out to put Nebraska up 42-38.
Throughout the game the Husker offense met struggles with ball security and injuries, but the freshman remained consistent from start to finish and made big play after big play. Robinson’s production was a big help for Nebraska today and will likely continue to be as the season progresses.
Second half improvements
Since blowing a 17-point halftime lead against Colorado, the Nebraska coaching staff has stressed that having the ability to finish games was one of the most important qualities for the Huskers to have.
Nebraska performed well from start to finish against Northern Illinois last week, but the performance came against a largely inferior opponent. This week, Nebraska improved on a horrid first half performance to score 28 points in the second half and earn the comeback win.
Illinois is nowhere near one of the best teams in the Big Ten, and it may be concerning that the Huskers needed such a big performance in the second half to get the win. However, the comeback still has value as it shows that Nebraska may not be a team that will give up in the second half as the year progresses.
Run defense still has room for improvement
One of the Blackshirts’ biggest strengths coming into the day was run defense. However, the Huskers knew the defense would face their biggest test against Illinois senior running back Reggie Corbin. Throughout the game, Nebraska failed that test.
Corbin started things off quickly for the Illini. On the first play of the game he ran for five yards, which he followed up with a 66-yard touchdown run. The Blackshirts did well to keep him in check for the rest of the game, holding him to just 63 yards on 18 carries after the first drive. Still, Corbin became the first running back to rush for 100 yards on the Blackshirts, finishing the game with 134 yards on 20 carries.
Other Illinois running backs found success on the ground as well. Senior Dre Brown had 59 yards and a touchdown on six carries, while freshman Jakari Norwood took his only carry of the game for 16 yards. Overall, the Illini rushed for 221 yards and four touchdowns in the game, averaging 5.8 yards a carry.
There are multiple things you can take away from Nebraska’s defensive performance against the run tonight. On one hand, the Blackshirts did well limiting Corbin for most of the game, which may be a good omen as Nebraska will go on to face better running backs as the year goes on. On the other hand, The Huskers allowed several big plays on the ground and certainly have room for improvement.
Kicking still a question
While this point may be a given, Nebraska struggled again in the kicking game. Sophomore safety and emergency kicker Lane McCallum made four extra points on the night but struggled in a pair of crucial moments.
Late in the third quarter, Nebraska scored a touchdown and had the chance to cut the lead to seven points. However, McCallum had his extra point blocked, which meant the Huskers were forced into a two-point conversion attempt on their next score.
Later on in the fourth quarter, the Huskers held a four-point lead and were forced to take a field goal inside the redzone. What would originally have been a 22-yard attempt turned into a 27-yard attempt after a false start, and McCallum missed the field goal off the upright. If he had made the attempt, Nebraska would have gone up seven, but instead the Illini had the chance to win the game with a touchdown.
While neither of those mistakes turned out to be costly, the Huskers desperately need to get the kicking situation fixed before it starts to cost them games.