Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Late Husker Rally Falls Short at Illinois

Champaign, Ill. - Nebraska rallied from a 21-point deficit late in the third quarter to pull within a touchdown, and had the ball with a chance to tie in the game's final minute, but Illinois held on for a 30-22 season-opening victory on Saturday afternoon.

The Huskers produced more yards of total offense (392-326) than the Fighting Illini, but a pair of pivotal second-quarter plays contributed to the outcome. A key roughing the passer penalty that wiped off a Nebraska defensive interception, and a Nebraska fumble late in the second quarter that led to a 41-yard scoop and score touchdown provided the momentum Illinois used to build a 30-9 lead late in the third quarter.

However, just 13 seconds after Illinois took its three touchdown lead, Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez sprinted 75 yards untouched into the end zone to spark a late Husker rally.

The Big Red went to the fourth quarter trailing 30-16, before Martinez engineered a 19-play, 91-yard drive capped by his four-yard touchdown pass to Oliver Martin with 2:41 left in the game.

The Nebraska defense, which played solid football throughout the day, got a crucial stop with one minute left in the game to give Martinez and the offense one last shot to send the game to overtime. But Nebraska was unable to mount a scoring drive as time expired.

Martinez finished with 232 yards on 16-of-32 passing with one touchdown and no interceptions, while adding 111 rushing yards on 17 carries, despite being sacked five times by the Illini defense.

Martin was Martinez's top target on the day, hauling in six catches for 103 yards and a touchdown. Graduate transfer Samori Toure contributed three receptions for 37 yards.

Freshman Gabe Ervin Jr. added 34 rushing yards on 12 carries, while Rahmir Johnson pitched in three carries for 11 yards, and sophomore Markese Stepp added three rushes for 10 yards, including Nebraska's first touchdown of the season. 

The Huskers trailed 2-0 at the end of the first quarter after Cam Taylor-Britt was ruled down in the end zone when his left knee touched after fielding a long punt and retreating all the way to the goal line before slipping to the turf.

On the ensuing drive, Illinois starting quarterback Brandon Peters suffered an injury while being sacked by Garrett Nelson and Deontre Thomas. Nelson led the Huskers with 2.5 tackles for loss on the day among his eight total stops.

Peters left the game and did not return. On the next play, Illini quarterback Artur Sitkowski was sacked by Pheldarius Payne, and a 55-yard Illinois field goal attempt was well off the mark. Payne finished with a pair of sacks among his five tackles on the afternoon.

Nebraska answered early in the second quarter with the two-yard touchdown run by Stepp, on a drive that also featured a 30-yard reception by Stepp out of the backfield. The Huskers failed on the PAT, but took a 6-2 lead with 14:25 left in the first half after a seven-play, 63-yard drive.

The Blackshirts continued to play solid defense and gave Martinez and the Huskers the ball back in short order, after a quick three-and-out that featured three rushes for nine yards by the Illini's Mike Epstein.

Nebraska took over at its own 31 and was immediately knocking on the door after a 43-yard connecting from Martinez to Martin. However, the Husker drive stalled at the Illinois 9-yard line and Culp kicked a 27-yard field goal to put the Big Red up 9-2 with 9:15 left in the half.

Perhaps the game's most pivotal play occurred on the ensuing Illinois drive. On 3rd-and-7 at the Illinois 44, Caleb Tannor came free on a blitz and hit Sitkowski in the chest just as Sitkowski released the ball. Sitkowski's pass was intercepted by Taylor-Britt at the Nebraska 45, but Tannor was flagged for both roughing the passer and unsportsmanlike conduct, giving the Illini the ball back and a 30-yard gain to the Nebraska 24.

Seven plays later, including four rushes and a reception by Epstein, the Illini back found paydirt on a one-yard blast to tie the game with 2:51 left in the half. Epstein led Illinois with 75 rushing yards on 16 carries.

Illinois forced a Nebraska punt on the next drive, but the Blackshirts got a fumble recovery from Myles Farmer after Luke Reimer knocked the ball loose after a complete pass from Sitkowski to Donny Navarro. Reimer finished with eight tackles on the day, just behind Husker leader Nick Henrich who posted 11 total stops.

Nebraska took over at its own 39 with 58 seconds left, hoping to put up points to take a lead to the halftime locker room. On 3rd-and-2 at the NU 47, Martinez was sacked from behind by Keith Randolph Jr., who knocked the ball loose. It was scooped up by Calvin Hart Jr., who raced 41 yards into the end zone to give the Illini a 16-9 halftime lead.

Illinois seized control on the opening drive of the second half with a 14-play, 75-yard march that consumed 8:04 on the game clock on a 100 degree afternoon on the turf at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

Sitkowski went 4-for-4 for 30 yards through the air on the drive while adding two carries for six yards. The rest of the drive was in the hands of Illini backs Epstein, Reggie Love III and Chase Brown, who combined for nine carries for 39 yards. Love III, who finished with 45 rushing yards on 12 carries, and Brown, who closed with 24 yards on five carries, helped Illinois total 167 yards on 48 carries on the afternoon. But it was Sitkowski who capped the drive with his two-yard touchdown pass to Luke Ford to put the Illini up 23-9.

On the flip side, Nebraska's opening drive of the third quarter resulted in a three-and-out. The Fighting Illini tightened their grip on victory with a quick, three-play, 47-yard drive that featured a 45-yard Sitkowski pass to Deuce Spann, before Sitkowski's one-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah Williams gave Illinois a 30-9 edge with 4:01 left in the quarter.

Sitkowski finished 12-for-15 passing for 124 yards and two touchdowns in relief of Peters, who opened 3-for-4 for 35 yards in the first quarter, as the Illinois quarterbacks combined to go 15-for-19 for 159 yards in the game.

Nebraska returns to Lincoln for its home opener next Saturday when the Huskers play host to Fordham. Kick-off between the Big Red and the Rams is set for 11 a.m. with live television coverage provided by the Big Ten Network.

Game Summary
Illinois 30 (1-0)

Nebraska 22 (0-1)
Memorial Stadium (Champaign)
Attendance: 41,064
Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021

First Quarter (ILL 2-0)
ILL - 4:07 - Safety, ILL 2-0

Second Quarter (ILL 16-9)
NEB - 14:25 - Markese Stepp 2 run (Connor Culp kick failed), 7 plays, 63 yards, 2:27, NEB 6-2
NEB - 9:15 - Culp 27 FG, 8 plays, 60 yards, 3:01, NEB 9-2
ILL - 2:51 - Mike Epstein 1 run (James McCourt kick), 11 plays, 75 yards, 6:24, 9-9
ILL - 0:37 - Calvin Hart Jr. 41 fumble return, ILL 16-9

Third Quarter (ILL 30-16)
ILL - 6:56 - Luke Ford 2 pass from Artur Sitkowski (McCourt kick), 14 plays, 75 yards, 8:04, ILL 23-9
ILL - 4:01 - Isaiah Ford 1 pass from Sitkowski (McCourt kick), 3 plays, 47 yards, 1:10, ILL 30-9
NEB - 3:48 - Adrian Martinez 75 run (Culp kick), 1 play, 75 yards, 0:13, ILL 30-16

Fourth Quarter (ILL 30-22)
NEB - 2:41 - Oliver Martin 4 pass from Martinez (Culp kick failed), 19 plays, 91 yards, 6:42, ILL 30-22 

Kickoff: 12:20 p.m.
Time of Game: 3:34