The very first Husker play wrote the story for Nebraska’s 41-23 loss to Illinois. Redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey was charged with a fumble after a backward pass. Three plays and 21 yards later, the Fighting Illini punched in their first touchdown.
McCaffrey’s turnovers didn’t stop there. He threw three interceptions; The first was the most excusable, as it came on a broken play following an errant snap on fourth-and-short. Another was near half-time, an interception by senior defensive back Tony Adams. Finally, the third was caught in the end zone on a Hail Mary pass by Illinois senior linebacker Jake Hansen with 6:38 left in the game.
In his second career start, McCaffrey went 15-of-26 for 134 passing yards. He was also the leading rusher with 122 yards on 26 attempts and two touchdowns. He recorded his first 100-yard rushing game to bring up the position grade after a four-turnover game.
Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez marched the offense down the field on Nebraska’s last offensive drive of the game. The 7-play, 54-yard drive ended with Martinez connecting with senior wide receiver Levi Falck for his first touchdown as a Husker. In his lone drive, Martinez was 3-of-4 for 43 yards and rushed for eight yards.
Running back: B-
Senior Dedrick Mills didn’t suit up for Illinois due to an injury against Penn State last weekend. Backup running back freshman Ronald Thompkins also joined Mills on the sideline. As a result, true freshman Marvin Scott III, in his first career start, rushed for 22 yards on eight attempts.
Sophomore wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson took on the role of a running back/wide receiver hybrid — the same as he did against Penn State after Mills’ injury. Robinson had 60 rushing yards on seven attempts, including a 32-yard run to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by McCaffrey.
Fighting Illini junior linebacker Khalan Tolson forced a fumble out of the arms of Robinson towards the end of the third quarter.
Wide Receivers: B-
Junior Oliver Martin caught his first two catches as a Husker for a total of 30 yards. Martin’s first catch was a 16-yarder to the Illinois nine-yard line — setting up a 30-yard field goal by senior Connor Culp in the second quarter.
Martinez connected with Robinson, who was surrounded by four Illinois defenders, for a 31-yard catch with 3:16 left in the game. Robinson finished with 60 receiving yards on six catches.
Falck pulled in two of his three targets for 11 yards and one touchdown. Freshman Zavier Betts’ only reception came from a 9-yard pass on Nebraska’s second drive of the game. Fellow freshman Alante Brown was targeted once and dropped a catchable ball for what would have been a much needed first down in the second quarter.
Tight ends: B+
Junior Austin Allen earned a career-high of five receptions, after earning his previous personal record of three catches against Penn State. With senior Jack Stoll out, Allen proved yet again that he is one of Nebraska’s most reliable receivers — recording 43 yards on five receptions.
Junior Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek pulled in a 16-yard pass in the second quarter. His only other target was ruled out-of-bounds on a close call in the fourth quarter.
Overall, Nebraska’s tight ends proved to be one of its more reliable position groups.
Offensive line: C+
Center Cam Jurgens had two bad snaps, one flying over McCaffrey’s head causing him to scramble on fourth down and throw an interception. Jurgen’s holding call on Nebraska’s one-yard line called back a Scott touchdown.
As for the rest of the offensive line, Nebraska rushed for 215 yards behind McCaffrey’s team-high of 122 yards. The team averaged 4.9 per carry, topped with 8.6 yards per carry by Robinson.
The Illinois defense recorded three sacks, seven tackles for loss and no quarterback hurries.
Defensive line: D+
Nebraska’s alternate uniforms, honoring the Blackshirts, must have jinxed its defense. After an impressive performance against Penn State, Nebraska’s defense gave up 490 total yards.
Both junior running back Mike Epstein and senior Chase Brown recorded over 110 rushing yards, adding to Illinois’ 285 total rushing yards. Epstein proved to be the defensive line’s kryptonite, averaging 8.7 per carry. He rushed down the middle for a 58-yard gain in the second quarter. Brown punched in two touchdowns and Epstein added one of his own.
Sophomore defensive end Casey Rogers recorded five tackles, the most in the defensive line group. Senior defensive end Ben Stille tacked on four tackles. Both redshirt freshman Ty Robinson and junior Damion Daniels added two tackles.
Stille, Robinson and Daniels were each rewarded Blackshirts in practice this week but did not show why in this game.
Yet again, Nebraska’s linebacker group attempted to carry the weight of the defense. Senior Will Honas had a team-high 10 tackles, including an 8-yard sack, 1.5 tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry. Fellow senior JoJo Domann added eight tackles, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble that was recovered by Illinois. Sophomore Luke Reimer had seven tackles and one tackle for loss.
Senior Collin Miller had four tackles before being carted after the field in the fourth quarter after an awkward hit. Head coach Scott Frost said in the post-game press conference that he is “cautiously optimistic” about Miller’s condition.
Nebraska’s secondary did not have one pass breakup.
Illinois junior wide receiver Donny Navarro recorded five catches for 58 yards and senior Josh Imatorbhebhe had 71 yards and one touchdown on four catches. Senior quarterback Brandon Peters completed 18-of-25 with 205 receiving yards.
Senior safety Deontai Williams led the group with six tackles. Fellow senior Dicaprio Bootle and Marquel Dismuke recorded four tackles each. Junior Cam Taylor-Britt had three tackles.
This secondary group is filled with very experienced players who did not play up to their potential and, just like Nebraska’s defensive line, did not earn their Blackshirts.
Special teams: B
Culp kicked a 30-yard field goal in the second quarter and converted all three PATs. Sophomore Will Przystup punted twice for 98 yards, both landing inside the Illinois 20-yard line.
Brown had three kick returns for 63 yards. Taylor-Britt added 22 yards on two punt returns along with Martin’s seven yards on a single punt return.
Nebraska’s special teams was unprepared for a fake punt on fourth-and-eight, and allowed Illinois punter senior Blake Hayes to gain 14 yards and a first down. Illinois wide receiver Kyron Cumby added two punt returns for 40 yards.
Nebraska’s kickers performed well, a far cry from last year. However, everything around the kickers should be somewhat better and need improvement, especially considering the bizarre run from Hayes.