Nebraska looked like it had finally turned a corner coming off its first win in nearly a full calendar year last week vs. Penn State. Then, all of that perceived momentum flew out the window on Saturday.
Illinois, which came in at 1-3 and one of the Big Ten’s worst teams statistically, did pretty much anything it wanted with the ball and stifled the Huskers’ offense all day in handing NU a 41-23 defeat.
Led by 285 rushing yards and two 100-yard running backs, the Fighting Illini racked up 490 yards of total offense and scored on seven of its 12 drives of the game. The Huskers turned the ball over a season-high five times that led to 20 UI points.
The five turnovers were the most since NU gave the ball away five times in a road loss at Purdue in 2015.
The loss left Nebraska having not won consecutive games since beating Northern Illinois and Illinois on Sept. 14-21, 2019, and without back-to-back Big Ten victories since beating Illinois and Michigan State on Nov. 10-17, 2018.
The day could not have started much worse for Nebraska, as a pass by McCaffrey on the first play from scrimmage was questionably ruled a lateral with Illinois recovering deep in NU territory.
The play was not reviewed, and the Illini punched in a three-yard touchdown run by Chase Brown to take a 7-0 lead just 1:29 into the game.
The Huskers were able to get things under control on their next possession, though, as McCaffrey led the offense 71 yards on 12 plays and tied the game up on a five-yard touchdown rush.
Illinois answered right back on the following drive, as a 35-yard run by Brown set up his second rushing score of the game from two yards out to make it 14-7 with 5:39 left in the first quarter.
A fourth-down interception by McCaffrey gave Illinois the ball at its 35-yard line, and Brandon Peters connected with Josh Imatorbhebhe for a 28-yard touchdown strike to push the lead to 21-7.
Nebraska eventually responded with a solid 10-play drive, but a one-yard touchdown run by Marvin Scott was wiped off the board on a Cam Jurgens holding penalty. The Huskers had to settle instead for a 30-yard field goal by Connor Culp to cut the deficit to 21-10.
Just like that, Mike Epstein ripped off a 58-yard run and Peters hit Imatorbhebhe on a 22-yard pass to move Illinois down to the NU 1. Epstein finished the job with a one-yard touchdown run to give Illinois an 18-point cushion with 5:50 remaining in the half.
McCaffrey threw another interception in the final seconds of the half, his third turnover of the day, and send Nebraska into halftime down 28-10.
Illinois put up 290 total yards, averaged 7.9 rushing yards per carry, and converted 5-of-7 third downs in the first half. The Huskers committed five penalties, went 3-of-8 on third downs, and recorded their first three-turnover half of the season.
Converting a fake punt of a first down on its opening series of the third quarter, Illinois held the ball for 16 plays and chewed up 6:31 off the clock before tacking on a 24-yard field goal by James McCourt.
Nebraska opted to stick with McCaffrey for the second half, and the offense started to get things going again. Four straight plays of 12 yards or more, including a 32-yard run by Wan’Dale Robinson, led to a one-yard sneak by McCaffrey for a touchdown.
That marked NU’s first second-half touchdown of the season.
The rally was short-lived, though, as Illinois with a one-yard scoring sneak of its own by Peters to cap a 10-play, 75-yard drive and push its lead up to 38-17 going into the fourth quarter.
A lost fumble by Robinson, the Huskers’ fourth turnover of the game, on what would have been a fourth-down conversion gave the ball back to the Illini and all but put the game away for good.
McCourt added another 21-yard field goal, and McCaffrey was picked off for the third time before being pulled for junior Adrian Martinez. Martinez led NU on a touchdown drive and hit Levi Falck for a four-yard scoring pass that gave the game its final score.
McCaffrey ended the day 15-of-26 passing for 134 yards, three interceptions, and a lost fumble. He also carried 26 times for a game-high 122 yards and a touchdown.
Nebraska will return to action next week when it travels to Iowa for a Black Friday showdown, with kickoff set for 12 p.m. CT on FOX.