There was a lot of pressure on Nebraska football head coach Scott Frost entering Saturday’s season-opener, and he put more on himself with his Bill Belichick-esque press conferences this week. The expectations of the Illinois game were simple: win and start the season on the right foot.
Frost wanted everyone to know how he and the rest of the team were focused on this game. By 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nebraska lost 30-22 in a fashion that appeared all too familiar, looking lost at times in the game and losing at all three phases of play.
Here are three takeaways from the Huskers’ season-opening stumble:
Artur Sitkowski outperformed Adrian Martinez
Over the course of four seasons, the Nebraska offense has declined steadily in points per game, going from 30 points in 2018 to 23.1 points in 2020 or about one touchdown less a game . One key reason for this is the regression of the Husker air attack, which has become harder and harder to watch.
Illinois’ offense had a clear idea of what it wanted to do. The Fighting Illini ran the ball over and over with the occasional pass attempt to either keep the drive alive or surprise. Sixth-year senior quarterback Brandon Peters suffered a first quarter shoulder injury, putting in sophomore quarterback Artur Sitkowski.
Sitkowski was one of the worst quarterbacks in the Big Ten during his time at Rutgers, throwing four touchdowns to 18 interceptions in 2018, and luck appeared to have gone Frost’s way as the sophomore jogged onto the field. However, Sitkowski went 12-for-15 with two touchdowns and 124 yards, both touchdowns coming in relatively easy fashion.
Sitkowski had a much easier time as a passer compared to Nebraska junior quarterback Adrian Martinez, despite the clear receiving talent gap between the two schools. Illinois’ top receiver in catches, freshman wide receiver Isaiah Williams, transitioned from quarterback to wide receiver this offseason.
The relative ease for Sitkowski contrasts to Martinez, who did not find junior tight end Austin Allen until the fourth quarter, Allen only managing four targets by game’s end. The reliable target was overthrown plenty, but the little involvement was a head scratcher considering how productive he was last year.
Another factor was how Illinois used its playmakers versus Nebraska. Where Illinois used Wiliams in multiple pop-pass situations, the Huskers relied on more long-developing plays. Illinois wanted to create as many yards after completion situations as possible and get its playmakers in space, while Nebraska relied on its quarterback being more accurate downfield.
That did not work and was a vital reason why Sitkowski outperformed Martinez. Obviously, Martinez had many accuracy issues, constantly throwing while back-pedaling and missing several throws that an experienced quarterback should hit.
Martinez failed to convert on multiple occasions when asked to push the ball down the field, missing an open touchdown to sophomore wide receiver Wyatt Liewer, and struggled at times with decision-making. Martinez had a bad performance, but that should not overshadow the questionable decisions in strategy with his receivers.
The offense did not look prepared and when asked to lean on airing the ball out, the Huskers failed.
Where Were The Blackshirts?
After an impressive first quarter, the Husker defense had shut out Illinois and added three sacks. Up 9-2, junior defensive back Cam Taylor-Britt picked off Sitkowski in the second quarter and Nebraska looked poised for its third straight scoring drive.
On Taylor-Britt’s interception, junior outside linebacker Caleb Tannor committed two egregious 15-yard penalties. Some may argue the validity of Tannor’s roughing the passer call, but Nebraska’s response after that interception was seen many times before.
After the overturned interception, Illinois was at Nebraska’s 24-yard line and took seven plays to tie the game at 9-9. The Huskers defense had a chance to make-up for the penalties with sound defensive play, but were slowly worn down by the Illini.
With Nebraska trailing 16-9 in the second half following a Fighting Illini scoop-and-score late in the first half, pressure was on the Husker defense to force a stop as Illinois opened the second half with the ball. Instead, the Husker defense gave up an eight-minute touchdown drive to start the second half and. Nebraska’s defense, littered with seniors and experience at defensive line, linebacker and in the secondary, could not stop an Illini squad that ran the ball nine times during the 12 plays of the drive.
The next drive for Illinois, Nebraska gave up a 45-yard pass to redshirt- freshman wide receiver Deuce Spann and gave up a one-yard receiving touchdown to Williams. Nebraska went down 30-9, giving up three touchdowns over a 12-minute stretch.
The Blackshirts were swarming in the first quarter but, after some pushback, the defense flipped to leaky normality. The Husker defense cleaned up its act in the fourth quarter, though, limiting Illinois to 36 fourth quarter rushing yards, but the stops were not enough.
Consistency was not there for defense. It stonewalled any Illinois offense in the first quarter before giving up three touchdown drives in the second and third. After the first quarter, Nebraska had zero sacks total.
Whether those two penalties had anything to do with the play dropping off is a different question, but there was clearly a difference of defensive acumen before and after.
The Special Teams Rot
Special teams is rarely discussed but when it is, it usually means that a team’s special teams unit performed poorly. That was the case in Nebraska’s performance against Illinois and another underlying theme far too prevalent in the Frost era.
Special teams is a work of not just one coach but a whole staff, using players from offense and defense to build up the unit. Illinois took a 2-0 lead as Taylor-Britt, a cornerback by trade, foolishly tossed the ball out of the endzone to try and prevent a safety.
In addition, Nebraska missed two extra points from senior kicker Connor Culp. Culp was perfect in 2020 on extra points and appeared initially to fill a void of previous Frost-coached teams at Nebraska.
Nebraska lost four points on routine plays that may have flipped the game. The mistakes also don’t track that Nebraska lost the field-position battle, starting at its own 22 on average compared to Illinois starting at its own 32.
A 10 yard disparity makes a big difference, and that comes through the fault of a poor punt return team. On three of Nebraska’s four scoring drives, the drive started at its own 25-yard line or better.
Nebraska rarely had favorable field position on Illinois punts, starting beyond its own 30 once on five punts. The Huskers special teams is a reflection of the entire coaching staff and its performance was poor, again.