The grades: Illinois 30, Nebraska 22 | National Sports

The grades: Illinois 30, Nebraska 22 | National Sports

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Steven M. Sipple weighs in with his report card from the Huskers’ game against Illinois. 

Gabe Ervin, a true freshman, made the start at running back. The backs found little running room, although Ervin did pop an 11-yard gain when Nebraska was pinned near its goal line in the first quarter. The offensive line simply didn’t generate enough movement, and when Nebraska fell behind 23-9 in the third quarter, it became difficult to be patient with a run game that was struggling in the first place. Adrian Martinez did pop a 75-yard touchdown run on a designed pass play. There wasn’t much else at all. Extremely disappointing.

Nebraska was shaky in this area, partly because protection was shaky. The pocket broke down on Nebraska’s third-and-4 play on the first series. The first big passing play came on Martinez’s 30-yard completion to Markese Stepp, who went uncovered on a first-quarter wheel route. Martinez overthrew tight ends on at least two first-half plays. His long completion to Samori Toure late in the third quarter was negated by an illegal pick on a defender. Martinez ended up 16-for-32 for 232 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions.

Caleb Tannor and Garrett Nelson stuffed Illinois’ first two runs for losses of 2 and 3 yards. Nebraska’s front seven came to play. Later in the half, safety Deontai Williams got into the act with a stop in the backfield on third-and-1. But Illinois’ ground game eventually heated up enough to finish with 167 yards while averaging 3.5 per carry. The Illini rushed nine times for 41 yards on their critical TD drive to begin the third quarter.

The pass defense faltered as Artur Sitkowski, the backup, completed 11 of his first 12 passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns. No way that should happen against a defense with so much experience. You must say, however, that Nebraska’s pass-rushers came to play. Pheldarius Payne recorded a first-quarter sack, then Deontre Thomas and Nelson combined on a sack that knocked quarterback Brandon Peters from the game. Payne followed with a sack on the next play. Safety Marquel Dismuke’s coverage on Deuce Spann wasn’t all that bad on the deep ball that ultimately led to the touchdown that made it 30-9. 

No real improvement here at all. Cam Taylor-Britt’s massive special-teams mistake was an energy-zapper as he inexplicably fielded a punt at NU’s 2 and his knee touched the goal line for a safety. Connor Culp missed two extra points. Unreal. Daniel Cerni’s first punt traveled 26 yards into the wind, but he popped his second one 44 yards into the wind as Nebraska was fighting the field-position battle. His last punt traveled 13 yards. Plus, some more questionable decision-making in the return game.

Nebraska had five penalties — not bad — but most came at bad times, one in particular. The roughing-the-passer/unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on Tannor were an excellent example of why many people are increasingly turned off by the state of football. Hard to blame them. That said, if Tannor did taunt the QB, he’s basically asking for a flag.

Hard to call plays when the offensive line is struggling mightily. Nice third-down call on the jet sweep to Toure for a 4-yard gain that set up Nebraska’s first touchdown. Another nice third-down call on Martinez’s fake pitch/counter run that produced a second-quarter first down.

Nebraska’s mild comeback keeps it from being an “F.” But, man, the list of concerns is a long one. 

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