Nebraska went into the game against Illinois as a 16-point favorite, and came out embarrassed. The Fighting Illini forced five turnovers and scored seven times in 10 drives, excluding drives that went into halftime or the end of the game.
The loss was not only surprising, but one of the low points of Nebraska head coach Scott Frost’s tenure. Here are three takeaways from the loss:
The dam broke defensively
Over the last two games, Nebraska’s defense showed promise.
Against Northwestern and Penn State, the Blackshirts combined to force four first half turnovers that resulted in 20 total points. Against Northwestern, the Wildcats did a lot better in the second half, but the Husker defense still gave the offense enough of a chance to stay in the game.
In the Penn State game, the second half defensive struggles were mostly the same. But against the Nittany Lions, the Blackshirts saved the game with the game on the line, forcing two turnovers on downs in the redzone to seal the win.
Those important, game-defining plays didn’t come this week. Nebraska gave up 490 yards and 6.4 yards per play to the Illini, marking the third time the Huskers have allowed over 490 yards in four games. Illinois, a team which had turned it over seven times in its first four games, didn’t turn it over once, despite five fumbles.
While the Nebraska offense didn’t do its part either, the explosive defensive plays from the last two weeks were completely absent. Nearly everything came easy for the Fighting Illini, especially on the ground.
In the first three games of the season, Nebraska allowed 202.7 rushing yards per game on 4.4 yards per carry. Illinois had the best rushing performance against Nebraska of any team so far this season, racking up 285 yards and four touchdowns on 5.5 yards per carry.
The secondary struggled as well. Senior quarterback Brandon Peters completed 18-of-25 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown. Illinois’ top wide receiver, senior Josh Imatorbhebhe, had four catches for 71 yards and a touchdown.
The Fighting Illini offense has been unimpressive this year, but had season-highs in points and yardage against the Huskers. Nebraska’s defense will have to get back to forcing turnovers in future weeks for the Huskers to turn things around.
The offense is a real problem
Last week, I said that despite impressive moments from redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey and the Husker offense, it was too early to say the offense had shown significant improvement.
That proved true today, as Nebraska’s offense struggled against an Illinois defense that ranked in the bottom five of the conference in both points and yards allowed.
Even acknowledging the absence of senior running back Dedrick Mills, Nebraska put out a horrid offensive showing. On the first play of the game, McCaffrey threw a confusing backwards pass that turned into a fumble recovered by Illinois. While the call of a backwards pass was questionable and went unreviewed, McCaffrey was past the line of scrimmage when he threw it, making it a strange decision regardless.
That set the theme for the rest of the game, where the Huskers turned the ball over five total times. McCaffrey threw three poor interceptions, although one was the inconsequential result of an errant snap on fourth-and-short that the freshman made the most of.
Overall, McCaffrey threw the ball poorly, completing 15-of-26 passes for 134 yards. In the first half he completed 7-of-16 passes for 70 yards and two interceptions.
The only positives for the offense came on the ground. A quarterback led the team in rushing for the fourth consecutive week, as McCaffrey ran for 122 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson had 60 rushing yards, including an impressive 32-yard run to the Illinois 1-yard line in the third quarter.
Nebraska’s offense has more and more questions to answer every week. The unit has only regressed statistically since Frost’s first season in 2018. The quarterback competition is nowhere close to over, as both McCaffrey and junior quarterback Adrian Martinez seem to be struggling.
Outside of the quarterbacks, Robinson is the team’s leading rusher and receiver. Nebraska’s second leading receiver is tight end Austin Allen. Past that, the Huskers have no receivers with over 100 yards. Robinson can’t completely carry the offense, especially considering he’s averaged 4.9 yards per touch, down from the 6.5 yards he averaged in 2019.
The offense’s regression can’t be attributed to one single thing. Unlike in 2018 and 2019, the Huskers don’t have wide receivers Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman to throw to. The running back rotation has been banged up, resulting in Mills being unable to step into the “bell cow” role he was expected to have.
There aren’t many reasons to be hopeful for the next three games
Excluding the week nine game, Nebraska’s final three opponents all are in much better shape than Illinois, and the Huskers’ only win came over a Penn State team that dropped to 0-5 today. Nebraska went 0-3 against Iowa, Purdue and Minnesota last year, and will look to avoid a repeat of that in the next three weeks.
In other words, the future doesn’t look great. This was Nebraska’s worst performance of the Scott Frost era, taking the opponent into consideration, and it doesn’t look to be getting much better.
Right now, the most likely scenario is the worst one, where the Huskers lose out. So, what does Nebraska do to try and avoid that?
To start simple, the return of key offensive players like Mills and junior wide receiver Omar Manning from injury could help the offense open things up. More importantly, Nebraska needs to figure out its quarterback situation.
Neither Martinez of McCaffrey have made a great case to be the starting quarterback. However, I think a system similar to the one Nebraska ran in week one against Ohio State, where Martinez starts but both quarterbacks are involved, could be the best option. Despite his struggles, Martinez is more experienced, and probably won’t make as many mistakes through the air while being similarly dangerous on the ground.
With that being said, there’s no reason McCaffrey shouldn’t also see the field. He’s a bit faster than Martinez, and can make plays from any position on the field.
A two-quarterback system is one most teams try to avoid, but the Huskers don’t seem to have many other options at this point. McCaffrey provided a spark against Iowa last year, throwing a 39-yard touchdown to bring the game within seven points. With a lack of reliable weapons outside of Robinson, utilizing the skills of both quarterbacks might be Nebraska’s best option for winning games down the stretch.