Nebraska Football vs. Illinois Photo No. 9

Nebraska coach Scott Frost reacts to a play during the game against Illinois at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Nebraska football has turned in some puzzling performances in the two-and-a-half year tenure of head coach Scott Frost.

Perhaps a home loss to Troy stands out, a 24-19 defeat in Frost’s second game at the helm. Perhaps it’s the following game at Michigan, a 56-10 defeat that still stands as the most lopsided Big Ten loss in Frost’s tenure. 

What about the second-largest loss? Certainly, the Huskers’ 48-7 defeat to Ohio State under the bright lights of College Gameday ranks somewhere among the worst by Frost’s Huskers. So too does the Huskers’ contest three weekends prior, in which they blew a 17-point lead at Colorado and lost in overtime by a field goal.

There was a defense, though, for at least some of these. Nebraska was still finding its identity in its losses to Troy and Michigan in 2018, plus then-freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez was out due to injury against Troy and far from 100% healthy against the Wolverines. 

Ohio State beat the brains out of nearly every team it faced last season, so Nebraska’s poor performance was essentially par for the course. The Colorado loss is less defensible, but the Huskers didn’t have a competent kicker at that point in the season.

None though, were as truly awful as the loss the Huskers endured today — a 41-23 loss in which Nebraska was outclassed in nearly every facet of play by an Illinois team that entered Saturday’s contest with only one win. 

Nebraska turned the ball over five times, while wasting the much-anticipated season debut of the “Blackshirt” alternate jersey on the defensive end. The Huskers gave up 490 total yards and allowed the Fighting Illini to convert 11-of-17 third down attempts, a perfect recipe for Illinois’ first victory in Lincoln in 96 years. 

“We started the game off about the way we played the whole game. I didn’t really see this coming,” Frost said postgame. “I was embarrassed by our level of execution in all three phases of the game.”

The way Nebraska started the game on Saturday, as Frost alluded to, was a sign of things to come. On the game’s first play, redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey took a few steps forward after faking a handoff to freshman running back Marvin Scott III. McCaffrey then threw what appeared to be a forward pass to sophomore wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, but it was ruled a fumble that Illinois recovered. 

The Big Ten referees on site didn’t have a convincing explanation as to why the play didn’t get a second look, citing the lack of a camera angle directly from the line of scrimmage. Before anybody knew what was going on, Illinois was up 7-0.

Nebraska battled from there, but it ultimately couldn’t compete due to turnovers, penalties, dropped passes and everything in between. A one-score lead quickly ballooned to an 18-point Fighting Illini advantage at the break, and it only got worse from there.

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. 

The Husker defense actually held on Illinois’ first drive of the second half, setting up the most embarrassing moment in an embarrassing game. Fighting Illini senior punter Blake Hayes took the snap on fourth down, and found that all but one player on the Huskers’ special teams unit had turned around to cover what they assumed would be a punt.

What resulted is one of the most hilariously successful plays you’ll ever see in football. That is, unless you’re the team defending said play. Hayes also seemed confused by Nebraska’s lack of commitment to the punt, hesitating multiple times before awkwardly stumbling forward for a first down to continue the drive. 

Illinois ended up eating more than six minutes of clock en-route to a field goal that gave it a 31-10 lead, a three-score advantage from which Nebraska could not rally. Much like we’ve seen in the past, the Huskers seemed to take two steps back for every one step forward, stunting their own drives with self-inflicted wounds repeatedly while Illinois took the game over in the second half.

What’s worse, Nebraska essentially killed all the positive momentum that it generated from its last two games. The Husker defense was at least competent in spots against Northwestern and Penn State. Against Illinois, they significantly regressed — allowing a season-high 285 rushing yards.

The Blackshirts have given up 995 yards in their last two games, following the 501 yards they gave up to Penn State last week.

Nebraska’s offense looked even worse. McCaffrey had a steep crash back to reality after a solid performance against the Nittany Lions, turning the ball over four times. The Husker offense gained nearly 400 total yards, but McCaffrey struggled significantly to make plays in the air when the Huskers needed it.

Illinois was the more physical team, the more well-prepared team and the better team than Nebraska on Saturday. Losing a game is one thing, but losing like this? That’s another, and it’s not something that often-used platitudes from the coaching staff and players can fix. 

Performances like this do not inspire confidence in year three of a coaches’ tenure. They’re the type that have current players on the roster talking on social media talking about Nebraska “wasting talent” in performances like the one the Huskers displayed on Saturday. 

They’re the type that have current Nebraska recruits — four-star tight end Thomas Fidone, for example — openly questioning Nebraska’s play in the midst of a blowout loss to a perennial Big Ten doormat. They’re the type of plays, drives and games that make those invested in the program sit back and wonder exactly what phase of the rebuild Nebraska is in at this point.

It’s understood that a bad culture was left by the previous administration at Nebraska. Frost said as much postgame, while noting that the Huskers have “come a long way” since he arrived in 2018.

Days like today make statements like that seem insane.

Losing to the Ohio States, Michigans and Wisconsins of the world is one thing. It’s a more troubling development when Nebraska isn’t just losing to Illinois, but doing so while looking like the far inferior side without showing week-to-week improvements.

“We’re going to get it fixed. I have as much or more confidence today than I’ve had,” Frost said. “The guys have to prepare a little better, the coaches have to prepare a little better.”

Based on the final score, one would wonder what exactly Nebraska did prepare for. The Fighting Illini are not world beaters and they weren’t exactly an offensive juggernaut either. Illinois hadn’t scored over 28 points in over a year, and it matched that total with a shade over five minutes remaining in the first half.

One of the more interesting moments of Frost’s postgame presser came when he reminisced about his time as Nebraska’s quarterback, albeit briefly. In mentioning that Nebraska didn’t come out with enough energy on Saturday, he said that he never needed motivation to play at Memorial Stadium.

It’s fascinating to compare that to where the program is now, over two decades since Frost’s championship-winning 1997 season. Nebraska was the class of college football then, a program trending towards becoming one of the game’s most storied dynasties.

The Huskers couldn’t be further from their past right now.

sports@dailynebraskan.com