10 things we learned from Nebraska’s loss at Illinois

Here are 10 of our biggest takeaways following Nebraska’s 30-22 loss at Illinois on Saturday.

1. New season, same story

Scott Frost, Adrian Martinez, Ben Stille, Cam Jurgens, and pretty much every other Nebraska team leader that spoke after the loss all said the same thing.

Saturday felt like they were watching the same awful movie with the terrible ending stuck on repeat for the past three years.

All of the progress the Huskers insisted they’d made over the offseason was nonexistent in Champaign.

They still gave the football away, committed critical penalties, had erratic quarterback play, couldn’t establish a traditional running game, and were putrid on special teams.

Frost was adamant after the game that his 2021 squad was still the best team he’d had yet in Lincoln. But when it came down to playing winning, disciplined football, NU looked no different than it did in its previous 20 losses.

2. Nebraska’s psyche is already in jeopardy

You could almost feel Frost and his players trying to convince themselves that this season could still be different during their post-game answers.

In a game that meant so much to the program, that «here we go again» feeling was impossible to ignore.

Martinez insisted that he and his teammates believed they would win up until the final whistle. But as one bad break after another started snowballing on them, NU looked like it was panicking.

The good news is that the Huskers have a locker room full of veteran leaders, and all of them made it clear that they weren’t going to let the season slip away after just one game.

While that’s the right mentality, something needs to change in a hurry to make good on that promise.

3. NU can’t hitch its wagon solely to Martinez

One of the many repeat patterns that carried over into Saturday was that Nebraska became solely reliant on Martinez to do everything on offense.

Down just two touchdowns midway through the third quarter, the Huskers seemed to go entirely away from their game plan and dropped Martinez back for play after play, hoping he’d make something happen.

As high as NU has always been on Martinez, he’s not the caliber of player who can single-handedly carry his team to win consistently.

The offensive line has to block better. The running backs need to produce better on early downs.

But until that happens, Martinez will have to be significantly better than he was at Illinois if NU is going to have any chance at a winning record.

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4. Special teams continue to be a disaster

For the renewed emphasis that Nebraska said it put into special teams this offseason, it’s hard to think that area of the game could have been any worse.

The punting was awful, as Daniel Cerni averaged just 34.4 yards on five punts, including two kicks of 26 and 19 yards.

The return game was a mess, punctuated by Cam Taylor-Britt’s maddening decision to field a punt at NU’s 1-yard line, fall in the end zone, and then throw the ball forward to spot Illinois with a safety.

Reigning Big Ten Kicker of the Year, Connor Culp, shanked two extra points after making all 20 of his tries last season. His only made kick was a 27-yard chip shot field goal in the second quarter.

Maybe the only «highlight» on special teams was freshman walk-on Brenden Franke, who got the nod as the kickoff specialist. Franke booted four of his six kickoffs for touchbacks and had another fair caught.

Nebraska had just 12 kickoffs for touchbacks all of last season.

5. The running game isn’t any better

On paper, Nebraska seemed to have a decent day running the football against Illinois, totaling 160 yards on 39 carries and two touchdowns.

But when considering that well over half of those yards came from Martinez running for his life on broken passing plays, it provides some sobering context.

There was a thought that the Huskers would try a different approach offensively this season and make a more substantial commitment to establishing a traditional running game.

Instead, NU’s backs carried the ball a total of 19 times for 54 yards with a long run of just 11 yards.

There was a stretch from the 9:15 mark in the second quarter to 35 seconds left in the third where Nebraska’s running backs didn’t carry the ball once.

6. The offensive line has a long way to go

Even though there was relative game inexperience, many thought that the overall talent and depth on the offensive line was the best Frost had ever had at Nebraska.

That certainly didn’t hold up with the o-line’s performance on Saturday.

The group gave up five sacks, four quarterback hurries, and six tackles for a loss of 35 yards. If you take out Martinez’s 75-yard touchdown scramble, NU only rushed for 85 yards on 38 carries (2.2 ypc).

Nebraska’s early-down rushing was non-existent, and Martinez never looked comfortable with the pocket constantly collapsing around him.

So much was said about how the offense would benefit from better play up front, but the woes we saw at Illinois will only continue unless there is a significant improvement.

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7. Tight ends remain absent in the passing game

Nebraska was without one of its top tight ends in Travis Vokolek, who did not make the trip to Illinois due to injury.

Even so, the tight end position remained on a milk carton in the Huskers’ passing game on Saturday.

Heralded as one of NU’s top offensive weapons all offseason, Austin Allen was targeted just four times and caught two passes for 23 yards.

Allen’s first catch of the game didn’t come until 9:13 left in the fourth quarter.

It feels like Nebraska has said it wanted to get its tight ends more involved in the offense every offseason for the past decade, yet they’ve hardly been utilized.

If Saturday was any indication, this year might only be more of the same.

8. The pass rush looked better

If there was one silver lining to an otherwise awful day for Nebraska, it was that its pass rush finally got some production.

The Huskers racked up three sacks in the first half against Illinois, including two by outside linebacker Pheldarius Payne.

The other sack, by Garrett Nelson, took out Illini starting quarterback Brandon Peters in the first quarter.

The pressure slowed down in the second half, but much of that had to do with Illinois throwing the ball just 10 times after halftime.

The bar was set very low for improving the pass rush, as NU had just 13 sacks in eight games last season. If nothing else, Nebraska took a step in the right direction in that regard.

9. Illinois played like a Big Ten team, Nebraska did not

One of the most painfully apparent differences between Nebraska and Illinois was that one team played steady, crisp football, limited mistakes, and made the big plays when it mattered the most.

That was the team playing its first game with a brand new coaching staff.

Bret Bielema has been around the block in his coaching career, including his great success in the Big Ten at Wisconsin.

He also had the benefit of working with 22 «super seniors,» the most of any Power Five team this season.

But Illinois played the way it takes to win in this conference and did so with its backup quarterback – a former Big Ten starter in Artur Sitkowski – playing the majority of the game.

The Ilini had a plan and an identity and never strayed from them. They ran the ball effectively, limited the turnovers and penalties, and were excellent on special teams.

Nebraska, on the other hand, has struggled to do any of that now going on four seasons.

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10. Next week is going to be very interesting

There was already plenty of concern about whether Nebraska would be able to keep its record 59-year sellout streak alive going into this season.

Now the Huskers are dealing with another ugly conference loss and trying to keep fan excitement up for a home opener against Fordham.

Nebraska fans desperately wanted to see improvement from their team in its win-loss record and the overall quality of its play.

Instead, they got another nationally-televised embarrassment in a loss that could set the tone for another sub-.500 season.

The sellout streak is NU’s last remaining connection to its storied past. Can it survive for another week? If so, how many of those ticket holders will actually show up?