On fourth-and-eight, Illinois senior punter Blake Hayes lined up for his second punt of the game, deep in Illinois territory. Hayes began the process of a normal punt before seeing a chance to make a mad dash for the first down.
He first ran to the right with grass ahead of him before cutting back to the left before getting to the line of scrimmage. Then, Hayes kept running until he made a jump cut about five yards away from the first down.
For most of this process, there was no Husker defender within five yards of Hayes, and though his moves did not help much, the punter got the first down and put the Illinois offense back on the field. Nebraska was down 28-10 at the beginning of the third quarter and had just forced what would have been a three-and-out.
Instead, Hayes’ fake punt gave Illinois new life and the Fighting Illini drove down to take a 31-10 lead with nine minutes left in the third quarter.
Nebraska responded fast with a touchdown run by redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey to cut the lead down to 31-17. Those would be the last meaningful points of the game for the Huskers.
Illinois went on another four minute campaign, this time putting the final touches on the drive through senior quarterback Brandon Peters’ one-yard quarterback sneak. Illinois, up 38-17, had almost sealed the game with just over two minutes to go into the third quarter.
The only thing heard through Memorial Stadium was silence, no groans and no fans leaving the stands. After Nebraska’s fifth turnover of the game, sophomore wide receiver and running back Wan’Dale Robinson’s fumble on fourth-and-one after a 14-yard run, Illinois had the ball at Nebraska’s 41 and ran with ease down to Nebraska’s goal line again.
Then, the Huskers faced a scary moment with senior inside linebacker Colin Miller’s injury, caused by a hit to the head and neck area, at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Miller’s injury came with serious concerns as he was slowly stretchered off the field and taken out of the game.
“This one hurt,” senior tight end Austin Allen said. “It hurt even worse because one of our brothers went down and was taken off the field.”
Nebraska, at this point, was down 38-17, and had just lost one of its most productive defensive players and team leaders.
“Just to see Colin down there like that, my friend and brother since we came in, it really hit me how heartbreaking knowing how much work this guy put in,” senior cornerback Dicaprio Bootle said. “At times, he’s our heart and soul of the defense...to see him go down like that. It really hurt.”
According to Frost in the post game press conference, Miller has feeling and movement everywhere along with a full range of motion. After Miller’s injury, Illinois took a field goal to extend the lead to 41-17 with 10:14 left in the game. Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez spelled McCaffrey on the Huskers’ final drive, his first action since two weekends ago at Northwestern. He led Nebraska on a touchdown drive but it was too little, too late.
“We started the game off about the way we played the whole game,” head coach Scott Frost said. “I didn’t see this coming. We talked all week about what we needed to win after a good win for our program last week that we needed to double down with energy. I was embarrassed by our level of execution.”
On Nebraska’s first play of the game, Illinois recovered a backwards pass from McCaffrey which gave the Fighting Illini a short field. The replay showed that it may have merely been an illegal forward pass, however, the referees decided against reviewing it due to not having a camera angle down the line of scrimmage. The Fighting Illini then punched it in after four plays to take a 7-0 lead just two minutes into the game.
A Nebraska response on its second drive tied the game up at seven. The Huskers went with tempo as McCaffrey went 3-for-3 with his passes for 22 yards and the Huskers ran on their last six plays, starting at Illinois’ 44-yard line.
Freshman running back Marvin Scott III, making his first career start, and McCaffrey had multiple five-plus yard runs and the drive ended with a McCaffrey five-yard touchdown run. That was the closest Nebraska got to matching Illinois.
“We got beat in every phase, players and coaches alike,” Frost said. “We came into the game with two different defensive gameplans because we weren’t sure who’s going to play. I don’t think we did a very good job as a coaching staff in settling the team into a gameplan based on who was in there.”
The Fighting Illini, like the Huskers, had their own quarterback issues. In Illinois’ last game against Rutgers, redshirt freshman quarterback Isaiah Williams was Illinois' fourth quarterback to start a game this season and he led Illinois to its first win of the season, a 23-20 win against Rutgers.
Instead of sticking with Williams, senior quarterback Brandon Peters was announced Illinois’ starting quarterback, his first start since opening week against No. 10 Wisconsin. Peters had tested positive for COVID-19 earlier, forcing him to sit for the conference-mandated three weeks.
Peters didn’t miss a beat, leading the Fighting Illini to 28 first-half points, more points scored in the first half than scored in any game in 2020 for Illinois so far. Peters was 12-for-15 with 140 yards and one touchdown —a 28 yard pass to senior wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe on third-and-six to give Illinois a 21-7 lead.
Peters was manageable through the air but that was all he needed to be. At halftime, Illinois had run for 150 yards on just 19 carries and had five drives that went into Nebraska’s redzone. Illinois scored four touchdowns on those drives, with the other drive ended due to the first half ending.
“Coach Osborne told us before every game that the team that is the most physical, the team that plays better on special teams and the team that wins the turnover battle, wins,” Frost said. “We didn’t get it done.”
On Nebraska’s end, the turnover nightmare mounted up similar to last year’s game against Illinois, where the Huskers had four turnovers. McCaffrey was responsible for four turnovers, including three interceptions.
With senior running back Dedrick Mills and redshirt freshman running back Ronald Thompkins both out, McCaffrey led the Huskers rushing attack with 26 carries for 122 yards, but his rushing could not outweigh his passing futility.
Illinois had 490 yards of offense while the same issues that have plagued Nebraska came again. Turnovers and penalties blunted any momentum as Nebraska had seven penalties for 66 yards along with five turnovers.
Those turnovers gave Illinois 20 points, while a holding penalty prevented a Nebraska touchdown and two defensive penalties helped extend Illinois drives that eventually resulted in a touchdown and field goal.
Now, Nebraska is 1-3 and last in the Big Ten West with an upcoming game against an Iowa team that’s starting to heat up, having won three consecutive games.
“It simply was bad today and that starts with me and goes to the whole team,” Frost said. “We got what we need in the locker room to win, we have to bring it together.”