LINCOLN, Neb. — In a half-season pockmarked by offensive inconsistency, the one thing Nebraska did each of the first three games is begin the game with possession and move the ball down the field quickly.
Entering Saturday’s game against Illinois at Memorial Stadium, one year after the Illini nearly beat the Huskers thanks in part to four forced turnovers, the message heard over and over and over again was that Nebraska must protect the football. Must.
On this game’s first snap, NU redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey threw the ball sideways to Wan’Dale Robinson, the officiating crew ruled it went backward, Illinois recovered and punched in a touchdown three plays later.
Eighty-nine seconds into the game, Nebraska’s one offensive advantage was gone. It’s top-line key to the game fell squarely behind the eight ball. And it did not get better from there.
One week after its first victory of the season, Nebraska imploded instead of building on a foundation. The Huskers turned the ball over five times and failed to slow an Illini offense that entered the game averaging 17 points per game, resulting in an all-around putrid 41-23 loss to the Illini.
“We started the game off about the way we played the whole game,” coach Scott Frost said afterward. “I did not see this coming. We talked all this week about what we needed to do to win and that after a good win for our program last week, we needed to double down on everything we’ve been doing — energy, practice habits, enthusiasm.
“I was embarrassed by our level of execution in all three phases.”
There is no one direction in which to point the blame for this one.
Nebraska generated virtually no passing offense in the first half, gaining only 70 yards through the air on 7-of-18 passing by McCaffrey, along with two interceptions, three drops and several missed opportunities downfield.
NU got good rushing numbers from the quarterback position once again but did not establish any ability to push the line of scrimmage up front.
Defensively, Illinois’ scoring drives covered 21 yards — after the turnover on the first play — and then featured marches of 75, 65, 89, 65 and 75 yards before the fourth quarter even began.
“I didn’t think we had the juice that we had last week on defense,” Frost said. “We didn’t get as many hats to the ball on defense. We made mistakes over and over on offense.”
Equally puzzling: What now is in front of Nebraska? A short week before a Black Friday trip to Iowa, but how does the program square such a promising outing against the Nittany Lions with such a deflating setback against the Illini?
“It was almost like our team thought we won one game, we’re good,” Frost said. “That’s not how it works in this league, that’s not how it works in life, that’s not how it works in football.”
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