Illinois beat Nebraska 30-22 Saturday to open the college football season in a game that had a little bit of everything you'd expect from a season opener. The Illini rode a steady performance from the offense and a wave of Nebraska mistakes to give Bret Bielema a win in his first game as Illinois' coach.
Things looked bleak for the Illini early when starting quarterback Brandon Peters went out with an injury to his left shoulder and was replaced by Rutgers transfer Artur Sitkowski, but Sitkowski performed well in Peters' absence, completing 12 of his 15 pass attempts for 124 yards and two touchdowns.
Of course, while it's an excellent start for Illinois, most of the focus will be on Nebraska and its coach Scott Frost. Frost entered the season on a seat that's considered warm, and it won't cool down following another sloppy performance from the Cornhuskers. The first points of the game came on a safety that should never have happened.
The Cornhuskers would recover to take a 9-2 lead, but the Illini would respond with two touchdowns, including a 41-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the final minute of the first half, and never looked back.
The Illini scored on their opening possession of the second half, and even though Nebraska mounted a comeback attempt, they fell short in the end.
Let's discuss the biggest takeaways from this performance from both teams.
1. Nebraska is a poorly-coached football team. The Cornhuskers have plenty of problems, and that's why Scott Frost is now 12-21 since taking over the program, including a 9-18 mark in conference play. And while not all of those problems can be pinned on Frost, it's becoming impossible to ignore the consistency of mistakes Frost's football team makes weekly.
The game started with a Nebraska punt returner fielding a punt running backward inside his 10-yard line, resulting in a safety. Just before halftime, quarterback Adrian Martinez fumbled, and Illinois scored off it to take a lead it never relinquished. Even in the second half, when Nebraska was mounting a comeback, the mistakes continued.
At one point, trailing 30-16 in the fourth quarter, the Cornhuskers were driving into the red zone when a snap sailed over Martinez's head, resulting in a 16-yard loss. Martinez would use his legs on the next play to make up for all the lost yardage, but there were still problems.
The team was down two scores in the final minutes, yet there was no urgency to the offense, as the clock kept ticking, wasting valuable time before Nebraska reached the end zone to cut the lead to eight. And then Nebraska would miss the extra point -- its second miss of the game.
It had to feel like deja vu for Nebraska fans watching a team make a mistake at seemingly the worst possible time over and over again. You can blame it on this being the first game of the season, but when it's been happening consistently over the last three seasons, I'm not sure anybody is willing to buy the excuse.
2. The Cornhuskers have a severe lack of playmakers on offense. Martinez takes a lot of heat, and deservedly so. He's too loose with the football -- his fumble today was the 26th of his career -- and he has a tendency to miss wide-open receivers. He finished completing only 16 of his 32 passes for 232 yards, but he also provided nearly every big play the Huskers had.
The problem Martinez and Nebraska have is that nobody else on the offense who seems capable of making a big play. Nebraska saw playmakers like Wan'Dale Robinson and other receivers transfer out of the program over the offseason, and it's left them with a receiver corps that looked incapable of finding separation against the Illini defense. Illinois went to man coverage often Saturday, daring Nebraska receivers to beat it, and they rarely did. Unless Illinois blew a coverage -- and it blew a few -- Nebraska receivers had a difficult time getting open.
It doesn't matter who your QB is. If receivers aren't getting open, and he doesn't have a reliable run game to help -- Nebraska running backs averaged only 2.3 yards per carry -- you're going to have difficulty moving the ball consistently.
3. Art Sitkowski is a hero. Sitkowski transferred to Illinois from Rutgers over the offseason, and to that point, in his career, he'd only been known for an excessive amount of turnover. In 18 career games at Rutgers, Sitkowski threw 20 interceptions, including 18 in 11 games as a starter in 2018. Saturday's performance was likely the best of his collegiate career.
When Sitkowski came in to replace Brandon Peters, he handed the ball off to a running back on his first eight snaps and was intercepted on his first pass, but a Nebraska penalty -- another one of those mistakes -- negated it. Sitkowski then settled in and took what the Nebraska defense gave him before setting up a touchdown with a beautiful strike down the sideline to Deuce Spann.
It's unclear how long Brandon Peters will be out following his shoulder injury, but given how Sitkowski played Saturday, there's no guarantee the job will be his when he gets back.