Nebraska’s offensive line has had its issues throughout the season, forcing junior quarterback Casey Thompson into big hit after big hit. But he usually returned to the field at some point during the game after each blow.
That wasn’t the case in Nebraska’s latest outing against No. 17 Illinois. Thompson took a hit midway through the second quarter while Nebraska led 9-6 and never returned. His absence effectively allowed Illinois to run away with the contest as Nebraska’s offense never recovered, accumulating in a 26-9 final.
“When Casey went down, I thought we were in a good place,” interim head coach Mickey Joseph said postgame. “But I was surprised it [the game] got away that quickly. Casey got hit on the elbow, that nerve on the elbow, and he couldn’t feel his fingers.”
Before the injury, Thompson threw for 172 yards and a touchdown off of seven completions. Redshirt freshman Chubba Purdy took over for Thompson following the injury, but managed only three completions for 15 yards. The lack of a vertical attack didn’t help the running game either, as junior Anthony Grant produced 61 rushing yards but the Huskers were held to 60 as a team.
With Nebraska’s offense in shambles, Illinois had little to worry about. Junior quarterback Tommy DeVito completed 20 of 22 attempts for 176 yards and two touchdowns, while junior running Chase Brown rushed for 149 yards and a score. For Nebraska’s defense, surrendering 26 points isn’t terrible compared to some of its previous games, but because of Thompson’s injury, it became a hole the offense couldn’t climb out of.
“It's hard,” Joseph said. “It's not easy. Especially going against a really good defense and moving around… I have to get them ready. I have to do a better job of prepping them during the week and getting them ready, and probably more reps to get it back. Sometimes a backup doesn't get any reps, and he's got to get mental reps and go in and do his job.”
Illinois got its turn with the ball first to start the game and didn’t waste time moving downfield. DeVito capped off a four-play opening drive with a 46-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Isaiah Williams. A missed extra point made the score 6-0. Nebraska tried to replicate the Fighting Illini’s quick drive as Grant picked up 41 total yards in the Huskers’ offensive debut. But a miscommunication led to Thompson throwing an interception to senior cornerback Jartavius Martin.
The Husker defense was able to prevent further damage as they forced an Illinois three-and-out. Nebraska’s offense, however, followed with a three-and-out of its own. Following another Fighting Illini three-and-out, the Huskers began another deep drive, with senior tight end Chancellor Brewington picking up a 45-yard reception. Yet, it stalled and resulted in a 26-yard field goal by sophomore Timmy Bleekrode.
Illinois looked to respond on its next drive as the first quarter came to an end. But a 12-yard loss, a timeout during a field goal and a false start penalty forced a Fighting Illini punt. Nebraska took advantage of this on its next drive, starting with a 32-yard pass to sophomore receiver Alante Brown. Senior tight end Travis Vokolek topped Brown two plays later and snatched a 56-yard touchdown pass that gave the Huskers the lead. Illinois managed to block the extra point, making the score 9-6.
The Fighting Illini forced a big play of their own, hitting Thompson as he threw, leading to their second interception of the game and Thompson’s injury. Brown punched the ball in for Illinois two plays later to make the score 13-9. The Fighting Illini began another drive downfield shortly after as the second quarter was nearing its end. Brown returned to the endzone for a second time off a 12-yard touchdown pass to give Illinois a 20-9 lead at halftime.
Purdy took over for the injured Thompson in the second half, but he wasn’t able to get much going on Nebraska’s first drive of the half — or any thereafter — leading to a punt. The Huskers caught a break on Illinois’ next drive though as Williams fumbled, and junior cornerback Quinton Newsome recovered the ball. The turnover set Nebraska up inside the Illinois 25-yard line. The possession didn’t last long, however, as Purdy threw an interception three plays later.
The Fighting Illini turned the turnover into points as junior kicker Caleb Griffin hit a 36-yard field goal to stretch the lead to 23-9. A Grant fumble on the following Nebraska drive led to yet another Griffin field goal, bringing the score to 26-9, the eventual final margin.
“In games like this, you make mistakes, you make plays, but you have got to limit the mistakes,” Newsome said postgame. “That's all, we got to come in here and make sure we get it done right.”
With the loss, the Huskers fell to 3-5 on the season and 2-3 in conference play. Nebraska’s next game will be at home against Minnesota on Nov. 5.