Lincoln – Nebraska committed five turnovers, and visiting Illinois converted the miscues into 24 points as the Huskers fell to the Fighting Illini 41-23 Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
The Huskers mustered 392 yards of total offense but still slipped to 1-3. Redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey rushed for 122 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries while adding 134 yards on 15-of-26 passing. But the young Nebraska quarterback also threw three interceptions and fumbled on the game’s first play from scrimmage. That fumble, a short throw that was ruled a lateral and a fumble, was recovered by the Illini’s Jake Hansen to set a strange tone for the game. Three plays and 21 yards later, Illinois was in the end zone after Chase Brown’s three-yard scoring run. The touchdown put Illinois up 7-0 just 1:29 into the game.
The Fighting Illini, who improved to 2-2, finished with 490 total yards, including 285 on the ground and 205 yards passing. Brown finished the game with 110 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries, while Mike Epstein added 113 yards on 12 carries, going over the century mark on the game’s final carry. Josh Imatorbhebhe finished with four receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown, while quarterback Brandon Peters completed 18-of-25 passes for 205 yards while adding 36 rushing yards and a touchdown of his own on eight carries. Most importantly on Saturday, Illinois did not turn the ball over.
Nebraska appeared to overcome the sudden jolt of the first fumble and the Illinois touchdown, as McCaffrey engineered a 12-play, 71-yard march that culminated with his five-yard touchdown run to tie the game 7-7 with 9:20 left in the first quarter.
Illinois answered with a nine-play, 75-yard drive capped by Brown’s second short touchdown run with 5:39 left in the first quarter to put the Illini back on top 14-7. The game swung firmly into the Illini’s hands on Nebraska’s next drive. Facing 4th-and-4 at the Illinois 42-yard-line, an errant snap sent McCaffrey scrambling for the ball in Husker territory. He recovered, then extended the play, but was forced to throw the ball downfield, where it was intercepted by Tarique Barnes at the Illinois 35.
The Illini took a seven-point advantage and the ball to the second quarter, and quickly extended the lead to 21-7 on a Peters to Imatorbhebhe 28-yard touchdown pass with 13:48 left in the half.
After the teams exchanged unsuccessful drives, Nebraska momentarily appeared to have cut the Illini lead in half on Marvin Scott III’s one-yard touchdown blast on 4th-and-Goal, but the score was wiped away with a holding penalty. The Huskers settled for Connor Culp’s 30-yard field goal with 7:32 left in the half to cut the Illinois margin to 21-10.
On the ensuing drive, Illinois gained a firm grip on the game with a lightning quick, four-play, 89-yard march to take a 28-10 advantage with 5:50 left in the second quarter. The drive started with an eight-yard run from Brown, before Epstein unleashed a 58-yard burst to the Husker 23. Peters hooked up with Imatorbhebhe for 22 yards on the next play to set up Epstein’s one-yard touchdown.
While the scoring was done in the first half, the Huskers committed one more turnover, as McCaffrey was intercepted by Tony Adams, who returned the pick 23 yards to midfied with 17 seconds left. The Illini ran out of time and were unable to attempt a field goal after advancing to the Nebraska 19
Illinois started the second half with the ball and Nebraska’s defense appeared to have the Illini stopped for a quick three-and-out, but punter Blake Hayes converted on 4th-and-8 from the Illinois 31 with a 14-yard run. Illinois turned that huge conversion into three points 12 plays later on James McCourt’s 24-yard field goal.
Nebraska cut into the Illinois lead with its first second-half touchdown of the season with a six-play, 75-yard drive capped by McCaffrey’s one-yard touchdown. But Peters and the Illini answered with a one-yard touchdown run of their own on the ensuing drive to send Nebraska to the fourth quarter trailing 38-17.
Illinois added a short field goal in the fourth quarter, while Adrian Martinez led a seven-play, 58-yard drive that resulted in a touchdown on Nebraska’s final possession of the game to produce the game’s final points. Martinez completed 3-of-4 passes for 43 yards and a touchdown pass to Levi Falck. Martinez added eight rushing yards on two carries.
Will Honas led the Nebraska defense with 10 total tackles, including a sack, another half TFL and a hurry, while JoJo Domann added eight tackles including a pair of TFLs and breakup.
The Huskers return to Big Ten road action next week when they travel to Iowa on Friday, Nov. 27. Kickoff against the Hawkeyes on Black Friday is set for Noon at Kinnick Stadium. The game will be broadcast on KBBN 95.3 FM with coverage on the Huskers Sports Network beginning at 10 a.m.