Nebraska 31, Illinois 16
LINCOLN, Neb. - Will it go down as The Drive for Illinois fans?
There are so many moments that change a game. But the Illini's chance at their first win at Nebraska since Red Grange galloped in the orange and blue (1924) was squandered on the excruciating, gut-punching Cornhuskers' drive that started midway through the third quarter and ended minutes in the fourth quarter.
18 plays. 76 yards. 10 minutes and 42 seconds. Two crucial Illini penalties and one controversial spot which spurred one controversial review.
All of it followed with Nebraska scoring 21 unanswered points in the final quarter.
Illinois (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten) appeared to be on the wrong side of spotty officiating. Terrell Newby was awarded a first down on a fourth-and-one call despite his knee appearing to hit down before he crossed the first-down marker. The play was reviewed, but the call stood -- meaning the referees didn't see enough to overturn, though most of the TV audience disagreed.
Newby (139 rushing yards, 2 TDs) scored the go-ahead touchdown for No. 15 Nebraska (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) on the next play. It's a game of inches, and Illinois appeared to be stolen of some crucial,game-changing inches.
Of course, Illinois also hurt itself when earlier in the drive Chunky Clements was called for a horse-collar penalty on a third-and-long going nowhere. Four plays later, Darius Mosley was called for a pass interference on fourth down.
During the first three quarters, Illinois was a much-different looking team than the one seen before last week's bye.
Three Illini defenders made their first career starts -- redshirt sophomore linbacker Tre Watson (10 tackles), sophomore linebacker Julian Jones (six tackles) and strong safety Patrick Nelson (team-high 16 tackles) -- and redshirt freshman running back Reggie Corbin made his first career start. The results: a huge boost in running the ball and defending the run.
Led by Corbin (nine carries, 72 yards) and Kendrick Foster (31-yard touchdown run), the Illini run game finally ignited. That allowed quarterback Wes Lunt to be more efficient. The senior quarterback also had a key 14-yard run (matching a career high) to set up the go-ahead field goal at the end of the first quarter.
The defense stood tall against Nebraska until it ran out of gas at the end. The Illini also won the takeaway battle (Darius Mosely interception, Rob Bain fumble recovery) for the first time this season against an FBS opponent.
The Illini scored 13 second-quarter points to claim a 13-10 halftime lead, their first halftime lead over an FBS opponent this season.
What it means
Illinois is capable of playing competitive football in the Big Ten. The coaches had a week to re-evaluate who can play and how they can play. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee spread out his offense and inserted players who could make defenders miss. Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson inserted some young, more physical blood into the linebacker corps. The coaching staff made adjustments that greatly improved their team's chances of victory. But the Illini still made gaffes (both on the field and on the sideline) that cost them that victory.
What went right
Corbin and Foster ran hard and made defenders miss, something Ke'Shawn Vaughn hasn't done this season. Both earned the opportunity to steal more carries from Vaughn.
The Illini front seven was much more physical. Everyone contributed including freshmen defensive tackles Kenyon Jackson and Jamal Milan.
Smith's philosophy centers around winning the turnover margin, and Illinois won that stat for the first time this season against an FBS opponent.
Lunt finished with positive net rushing (five yards) for the first time in his career. That end-of-half run is the type of winning play Illini coaches and fans have wanted to see out of the redshirt senior.
Chase McLaughlin hit three field goals (24, 43 and 33 yards, respectively) and is 5-for-5 on the season.
What went wrong
Everything on The Drive.
Following a 3-andout with under four minutes left, Lovie Smith punted on 4th and short. His defense had been on the field most of the half. Predictably, Newby ran by those tired defenders for the 63-yard clinching touchdown.
Penalties hurt the Illini again. A first-quarter hold on Gabe Megginson wiped out a 40-plus yard play-action pass to Malik Turner. A Chayce Crouch delay of game penalty on first-and-goal from the four likely cost the Illini four points. A Dionte Taylor personal foul penalty killed the Illini's drive to start the second half. On Nebraska's crucial 10:58 second-half scoring drive, Illinois gave Nebraska first downs on a third-and-long going nowhere (Chunky Clements' horse-collar tackle) and on a fourth (Darius Mosely's pass interference).
Nebraska took advantage of an aggressive Illini defense with a few big plays on screen passes.
Illinois returns home for the most winnable game left on the schedule and one of possibly two games in a row in which the Illini could be favored. TheIllini lost their last home game against Purdue (38-27 in 2014) and that was that was one of just two Big Ten wins so far for embattled Boilermakers coach Darell Hazell, who is 8-31 overall and 2-22 during confefrence play. Purdue is the least talented team in the Big Ten. No game appears like a "gimme" for this Illini bunch, but if they play like they did against Nebraska, Illinois and Lovie Smith should get their first Big Ten win.