It was anything but pretty, but it sure was reassuring.
Everyone outside the Nebraska sideline had that familiar ‘here we go again’ feeling at some point during Nebraska’s 42-38 comeback win at Illinois.
For some, it was on the 66-yard touchdown run Illinois senior running back Reggie Corbin broke on the first drive of the game. For others, it was after the first, second, third or fourth time Illinois pushed its lead to 14. If it wasn’t during any of those points, it would have happened after sophomore kicker Lane McCallum’s 29-yard field goal doinked off the left upright, giving the Fighting Illini one final chance to win the game.
While that is expected for fans, it was important to see a similar mentality not overpower Nebraska on the field Saturday night. Doubt and panic are drugs for losers, ones that have been abused ad nauseum by this program over the past decade.
Instead, sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez and the Huskers stayed calm as their poor play and fumble issues continued well into the third quarter. They stayed collected as running backs and wide receivers repeatedly limped and hobbled off the field after absorbing hits with a power that can only be provided by a team hungry to prove they aren’t a last-place team as everyone predicted.
Martinez struggled mightily at times, missing receivers high, low and wide and leading them into crushing hits on completions. But as the game continued on, Martinez kept relying on what was working for him. He methodically drove the offense down the field for a touchdown to make it an eight-point game late in the third quarter, giving the Fighting Illini that first dosage of doubt that they too rely on.
The drive was nine plays, 75 yards and featured just two plays longer than 21 yards. It came after the two previous drives ended with fumbles on the second play of each drive. More importantly, it proved that head coach Scott Frost’s mantra of remaining calm and relying on practice habits no matter what is not just talk.
Following that drive, Illinois went on to gain 40 yards and score three points for the entire fourth quarter. Nebraska had 209 yards during that same period.
There are plenty of signs of concern for the Huskers following this close win, most notably with turnovers and penalties. Injuries are also quickly piling up on both sides of the ball.
But looking back to exactly one year prior proves tonight was a small step forward for the stability of this program.
In Nebraska’s fourth game of the 2018 season, it let 11 penalties bury it in a 42-28 loss at home against Purdue. Frost fumed like never before after the game, knowing that his team had beaten itself.
Between four turnovers and 11 penalties that resulted in 119 yards, Nebraska tried as hard as it could to beat itself. Granted, Illinois did everything it could to help prevent that.
While the Fighting Illini had plenty of shining moments in tonight’s game, several questionable play calls and costly drops prevented them from controlling this game.
There was a play where the entire offensive line didn’t move while quarterback Brandon Peters scrambled outside of the pocket only to be sacked immediately. There was a wide receiver double-pass into multiple Husker defenders that miraculously wasn’tintercepted following Nebraska’s first fumble of the third quarter.
There also was the baffling decision to run out the clock in the final minutes of the first half up only seven with two timeouts left and a very consistent kicker. Illinois certainly doesn’t look like the worst team in the division, but it showed plenty of reasons why people still believe that.
Through four games, Nebraska’s made progress but still has several red flags. They survived a trap game on the road, and are now rewarded with a primetime showdown against No. 6 Ohio State next week.
A defense has made big and timely plays. The quarterback found a way to put away a tight game on the road using his arm and his feet. The running backs both are finding their groove, and a freshman freak of nature had his coming out party with 168 total yards and three touchdowns.
The losing culture continues to wash away from Nebraska football. Now, it’s time to find out how this team performs under the brightest of spotlights.