The “week zero” slate of college football games played Saturday included one matchup of special interest to the Oklahoma Sooners. The Nebraska Cornhuskers opened their season with a trip to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini in advance of their date with the Sooners in Norman on Sept. 18. Based on what NU showed against the Illini, the marquee non-conference game on OU’s schedule doesn’t look particularly daunting.
Here are a few quick takeaways from Nebraska’s 30-22 loss:
*Season openers often give faulty impressions. Big Red fans need to hope that what we witnessed Saturday was an aberration.
The biggest red flag of the game had to be the general lack of focus on NU’s part. The Illini were playing their first game under new coach Bret Bielema, but the Cornhuskers looked more like the team under new management. NU committed a litany of disappointing errors, including multiple penalties that negated key plays and an instance of the coaches not realizing down and distance.
This was a revenge game in which Nebraska essentially had the national stage to itself. The Cornhuskers were playing a bad Illinois team that lost its starting quarterback in the first half. They couldn’t take advantage of a tailor-made opportunity to get what should have been an easy win to start the season on a high note. Instead, they stumbled around for four quarters.
Bottom line: NU offered little reason to believe the program is improving after four years under coach Scott Frost and his staff.
*No player embodied NU’s lack of progress better than quarterback Adrian Martinez, who was making the 28th start of his career on Saturday.
On a 75-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, Martinez showcased the tantalizing explosiveness that made him a compelling prospect years ago. He ran for a total of 146 yards on 11 carries in the game, excluding sacks.
But the fourth-year signal caller sprayed the ball all over the field when throwing it. For the game, he completed 16 of his 32 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. That’s not horrible; however, he missed a handful of easy throws that kept points off the board. He also coughed up a ball that Calvin Hart Jr. of Illinois took to the house in the closing minute of the first half.
The reality is that Martinez hasn’t changed much from year one to year four with the Huskers. He’s most dangerous running the ball, and he won’t find much room to operate versus the OU defense.
*The NU offensive line in general had a rough day. Illinois plugged up the Huskers’ running lanes, allowing about three yards per carry to every Husker not named Adrian Martinez. Meanwhile, the Illini sacked Martinez five times.
The OU defensive line presumably liked what it saw on Saturday.
*Not all of those sacks should be pinned on Martinez and the OL. The NU receiving corps doesn’t appear to have any options who will keep defensive coordinators up at night.
Junior Oliver Martin did the most damage of any NU receiver, catching six passes for 103 yards and a touchdown. (Note that Martin previously walked on at Iowa and Michigan before transferring to Lincoln last year.) Lanky Montana transfer Samori Toure (6-3, 190 pounds) could turn into a matchup issue at some point for defenses, but he had three receptions for 36 yards versus the Illini.
*As discombobulated as the NU offense was, you could make the case that the group formerly known as the Blackshirts gave an even more disappointing effort.
Illinois didn’t seem to be doing anything special in the run game, but RBs Mike Epstein and Reggie Love churned out 120 yards on 28 attempts. The most dispiriting drive of the game had to be Illinois’ first possession of the second half, a 14-play TD drive that covered 75 yards in a little more than eight minutes. For Bielema’s squad, it was a borderline erotic combination of power running and play-action passing by QB Art Sitkowski to put the Huskers in a deep hole in the second half.
In an especially concerning development for NU, Illinois appeared to win on the edges. Given the disparity in athleticism between the two teams, that shouldn’t happen.
*Lastly, the NU special teams produced a series of debacles. Senior kicker Connor Culp missed two extra points out of three attempts. Meanwhile, the Illini got their first points of the game on a safety when the knee of returner Cam Taylor-Britt touched down in the NU end zone after fielding a punt inside the Cornhuskers’ own two yard line. Adding insult to injury, Taylor-Britt threw an illegal forward pass when he realized he had wandered into disaster.
All in all, the sequence summed up a nightmarish day for an NU team that will have a hard time staying competitive when it visits Oklahoma in a few weeks.