s-IllinoisWhattoWatchFor

Nebraska’s Gabe Ervin Jr. (22) runs the ball during the Spring Game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

After months of consternation, scandal and bits of muffled hope, Nebraska football fell at the first hurdle to Illinois on Saturday.

Both the Huskers and Illini had strong offensive question marks heading into the game. After all, Nebraska head coach Scott Frost went into the year losing his best running back in Dedrick Mills to the NFL draft. So the team was forced to make a transition.

On the other end, the Illini had fully torn down the coaching staff in the offseason, later ushering in the start of the Bret Bielema era. His first game in charge, Bielema’s task only grew more fearsome due to a shoulder injury to starting senior quarterback Brandon Peters.

“I give them a ton of credit,” Frost said postgame. “It’s hard to come in with a new staff and get a team ready. They’re a veteran team, so maybe that helped them pick it up quicker.”

The replacement was sophomore quarterback Artur Sitkowski, a transfer from Rutgers who, in his past three years, had thrown only eight touchdowns to 20 interceptions. 

Peters’ injury in the first quarter proved a turning point in the game, though not in favor of the Huskers. The calm Sitkowski put together a fine display, completing 80% of his passes and eventually ending with two touchdowns.

Though a strong argument can be made that Bielema and company’s task was more daunting ahead of the game, a number of factors went against Frost and the Huskers.

One in particular which helped to swing the game was rather simple mistakes. Scoring in the game opened off of a rather bizarre play by junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt. Taylor-Britt, deep in his own territory for a punt return, decided to receive the ball at the one yard line.

From there, Taylor-Britt was hit on the one yard line, and knew he was going down in the endzone. To compensate, the captain attempted an illegal forward pass, thus ruling the incident, in all, a safety.

The impact of Taylor-Britt’s gaffe was relatively minimal on the game, however. Illinois did not score off of the drive resulting from the safety nor did two points swing the game.

Following a Nebraska touchdown, missed extra point and field goal , the Huskers were up 9-2 with 9:15 left in the second quarter, but a resulting Illinois drive evened the game.

Another mistake which proved fatal, however, happened at the very end of the first half.

Nearing the end of the first half, junior quarterback Adrian Martinez was hit and fumbled the ball, the resulting fumble returned to the endzone. A game which was at once 9-2 and then 9-9 suddenly swung in favor of the Illini. 

Bielema’s team not only had just gone up 16-9, but would also receive the ball to start  the second half. Once again, mistakes played a formative role in the result of a Husker football matchup.

“I was just as surprised if not more surprised with those types of mistakes,” Martinez said postgame. “For example, my fumble at the end of the half, I think that was a big moment for my team, and those mistakes just can’t happen.”

A strange problem also cropped up for Nebraska’s kicker, senior Connor Culp. Culp was the Big Ten’s Kicker of the Year last season and went perfect on all 20 of his extra points, but missed two against Illinois. These mistakes, like Taylor-Britt’s, did not strictly affect the outcome of the game, but were points of major concern. 

For as much as mistakes naturally swung the outcome of the game, a key stretch in the third quarter doomed the Huskers just as much.

At the start of the third quarter, an epic eight minute, 12-play drive for the Fighting Illini turned a 16-9 lead into a 23-9 lead. It was Sitkowski who found junior tight end Luke Ford wide open in the endzone which capped off the drive.

Then, on Illinois’ next drive, Sitkowski hit a tight 45-yard pass down to the goalline, and subsequently pulled off a touch pass to quarterback-turned-receiver freshman Isaiah Williams. This novelty play, a basic idea which the Illini exploited multiple times in the game, resulted in a touchdown and a 30-9 Illinois lead. 

“We got behind the eight ball at the start of the second half,” Frost said. “We have to play better for the entire 60.”

Bielema is known for his running game, and was expected to utilize his backs significantly against the Huskers. Though the likes of sophomore running back Chase Brown was a revelation against the Huskers last season, his teammate in senior running back Mike Epstein shouldered a greater amount of the load against Nebraska, leading the team in running attempts.

Nebraska is also theoretically a team which likes to run the ball, but unfortunately a combination of a surprisingly dysfunctional offensive line and a confused running back room was one of the key problems the Huskers failed to overcome.

Going into the game, the Huskers were rather tight-lipped on who would be given the starting nod at running back. There were rumors that sophomore Markese Stepp, a transfer from the University of Southern California, could replicate much of the production of the aforementioned Mills. Or perhaps freshman Sevion Morrison, an oft-bandied about name in pre-season, could be a surprise inclusion.

Rather, Nebraska went with true freshman Gabe Ervin Jr., an outside bet to land the starting job prior to Saturday. The Buford, Georgia native struggled mightily in his starting role, only managing 19 yards off of 12 attempts. This can’t all be attributed to Ervin as there was plenty of blame to shoulder elsewhere for Nebraska’s running game failures.

That being said, one player did have an exceptional game on the ground in the form of Martinez. Despite missing a number of key looks in the air and the backbreaking fumble, Martinez single-handedly kept Nebraska in the game by virtue of his running.

One play which stands out in particular was near the end of the third quarter, where Martinez found a hole in the defense and managed a 75-yard touchdown run, the longest since another touchdown by former quarterback Taylor Martinez managed a 76-yard run against Wisconsin eight years ago.

Martinez tried his best to save the Huskers throughout the game, eventually ending with 111 yards on 17 rushing attempts for an average of 6.5 yards per attempt. 

Unfortunately for the Huskers, the second-to-last drive by Nebraska took up a considerable amount of time. Though the touchdown drive brought the game to within one score, by the time Nebraska took back the ball there were only around 50 seconds left, which proved insurmountable.

“It was a bit of the same old story for this program that we need to get fixed, but this will not deter us, this will not discourage us,” Martinez said. “We know what we’re capable of.”

sports@dailynebraskan.com