When last week’s 30-23 manhandling of Penn State allowed Nebraskans to coronate their Cornhuskers as “returning toward football greatness,” they forgot something.
A different Illinois than anyone has seen, or even imagined.
An Illinois team with no wins in Lincoln since Red Grange ... an Illinois team deemed a 16 1/2-point underdog ... an Illinois team rated No. 14 in the Big Ten at midseason by a “collection of experts” on the Rivals board (just no respect; the UI defeated No. 13 Rutgers a week ago) ... an Illinois team that led for three seconds (at Rutgers) in the entirety of the first four games.
So just when 2020 seemed so crazy, the year of the pandemic took another wild dive with Lovie Smith’s athletes doing nearly everything right at Nebraska on Saturday.
This wasn’t a magical comeback like last year’s triumphs over Wisconsin and Michigan State. This was complete domination marked by 20 points on five Lovie-special takeaways (plus the recovery of their own three bobbles), the spectacular return of quarterback Brandon Peters (18 of 25 with no interceptions) and front-line blocking that propelled both Chase Brown (110) and Mike Epstein (113) over the 100-yard mark.
How, you ask? What was behind the UI’s overnight turnaround?
Don’t discount inspiration. The Illini were whooping it up from the opening kickoff when Kerby Joseph raced down for a crashing tackle. On first down, Nebraska quarterback Luke McCaffrey ran forward and tried a sideline toss which the officials ruled, in a questionable call deserving a review, a fumbled lateral that ever-present linebacker Jake Hansen recovered.
Illinois quickly carved out 21 yards to lead, 7-0, and maintained a day-long rhythm by repeatedly pouncing on Nebraska miscues. And then, after mounting a 290-yard first half, ace punter Blake Hayes provided the day’s highlight, a 14-yard scamper on a fake punt when the Cornhuskers elected not to pressure him.
Yep, it was one of those days you dream about. Brown darted 35 yards to set up the second Illini TD. Josh Imatorbhebhe hauled in a 28-yard pass for the third. Epstein ran 58 yards prior to his 1-yard plunge.
Peters hit Daniel Barker for 25 yards and Donny Navarro for 23 ahead of his TD sneak. James McCourt chipped in with 11 kicking points.
Unneeded was Isaiah Williams, who ran for a QB-record 192 yards in Peters’ absence the previous Saturday. Peters was totally in charge after QB questions bounced around Champaign-Urbana all week.
Ohio State up next
Of course, from the Nebraska standpoint, this will be viewed differently, beginning with more criticism of Scott Frost who, like Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, seemed like the perfect fit at his alma mater ... before he wasn’t.
Taking seven Nebraska possessions in the first half, imagine the frustrations that built on that sideline: (1) the fumbled lateral, (2) a 71-yard TD march, (3) a sideline interception by Tarique Barnes after a bobbled snap; (4) two dropped passes necessitating a punt, (5) a stout march to the 1-yard line where a holding penalty required a field goal, (6) three-and-out with a penalty involved, (7) a pre-halftime interception by Tony Adams after the Huskers passed midfield.
And so it went with Khalan Tolson causing and recovering a third-quarter fumble, and Hansen picking off a deflected pass, more than offsetting the Huskers’ two second-half TDs.
Don’t ask how this affects the UI’s underdog status against Ohio State next week. The Buckeyes are vastly more talented than Nebraska, and less mistake-prone. But it’s also true that Indiana, down 35-7 Saturday, outscored the Buckeyes 28-7 the rest of the way as Ohio State held on for a 42-35 win.
It’s the year of uncertainty, remember.