Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 42, Illinois 38

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Yeah, I know this is late. Given the level of stress induced by this game, it took a few days to recover.

Nebraska fell behind on the second play of the game and trailed for most of the contest, looking for all the world like it was finding yet another way to lose a game away from home. But late in the third quarter, Nebraska found its mojo and was able to grind out that elusive road win.

Of course, Nebraska missed a chance to make it easy on itself and its fans, having to settle for a field goal after having a first-and-goal at the one, then taking points off the board with a penalty, then missing the ensuing attempt. But a stout Blackshirt defensive stand (along with maybe a missed pass interference call) helped Nebraska escape with its third win of the season.

So in reviewing Nebraska’s cardiac-care win over Illinois …

The Good

Adversity Responded. With 5:40 left in the third quarter, Nebraska was losing to Illinois 35-21, and it looked to all the world like NU was going to continue its futility on the road. But Nebraska was able to rally, scoring three touchdowns and holding Illinois to just a field goal to escape Champaign with a win.

That’s a sign of strength, Husker Fan. It’s not at all difficult to see previous Nebraska squads having that level of adversity stare them in the face and wilt into defeat. Instead, Nebraska accepted the challenge and performed under immense pressure, and emerged victorious. Just like losing begets losing, winning begets winning, and this win coming through a cauldron of adversity can do nothing but provide confidence for the squad going forward.

DubRob. Yeah, this kid might work out after all. True freshman Wan’Dale Robinson led Nebraska in both number of carries (19) and number of receptions (8), for 186 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. And with Maurice Washington out injured and Dedrick Mills fumbling, Robinson showed he was able to run between the tackles with power in addition to being a matchup nightmare on the perimeter.

And yes, the old white guy is going to try to make DubRob a thing.

Numbers Don’t Lie. Take a look at ESPN’s Bill Connelly’s advanced statistical analysis for the game.

Without getting too far into the weeds, Nebraska putting up 690 (!) yards of total offense against Illinois meant that, just looking at the numbers, NU had a 97 percent chance of winning the game. So yes, that feeling you had of Nebraska trying to wrest defeat from the jaws of victory is borne out by the numbers.

But think about how you’d feel if, somehow, Nebraska didn’t have those turnovers and mental mistakes. If Nebraska was able to put up the offensive show it did and not step on rake after rake, this game would have been a blowout. And maybe the upcoming showdown with the Buckeyes wouldn’t seem quite as daunting.

*looks at Ohio State’s 2019 performance*

Or, maybe it still would seem pretty daunting.

The Bad

Adversity Created. It’s great to overcome adversity. It’s less great when the adversity you overcome is created by your own mistakes and ill-discipline. Illinois shocked Nebraska on the second play from scrimmage with a 66-yard touchdown run from Reggie Corbin. Illinois also scored on drives of 37, 2, 14, and 30 yards, meaning Nebraska handed Illinois four separate point-blank opportunities to score and create a hole for Nebraska to dig out of.

Not-So-Special Teams. Well, so much for Nebraska being Kicker U (as coined by a smart and particularly handsome analyst). With injuries to Barrett Pickering and Dylan Jorgensen, Nebraska has been scrounging for anyone who can kick the ball through the uprights and out of the end zone. Nebraska is (hide the children’s eyes for this) no. 117 nationally in PAT accuracy and no. 123 nationally in field goal accuracy. Nebraska’s inability to get a deep (and high) kickoff has led to opponents having great field position, putting even more pressure on a defense already stretched from offensive inconsistencies.

Nebraska is hoping that Matt Waldoch, a new walkon who played for the club soccer team FC Bugeaters, will help provide some answers. Unless Pickering is able to get back to full health soon, though, it could be a massive source of trouble for Nebraska.

The Looming Challenge. Nebraska is 3-1, and isn’t all that far away from being 4-0 (and probably nationally ranked) coming in to this weekend’s game. But anyone who has watched Nebraska this season knows that NU has not come close to putting together a truly complete four-quarter performance. Even in Nebraska’s most comfortable win over Northern Illinois, the Huskies missed two wide open deep shots that, had they hit, could have changed the complexion of the game.

And, oh, by the way, the Ohio State squad coming to Lincoln looks much more formidable than had been anticipated this offseason. New head coach Ryan Day and quarterback Justin Fields look to be hitting on all cylinders. Last week, Ohio State fell behind Miami (OH) 5-0 in Columbus – and won the game 76-5.

The Buckeyes look to all the world like a playoff team. If the inconsistent and ill-disciplined Nebraska team that showed up in Champaign takes the field on Saturday, the Buckeyes will murder them.

And the Unearned Glory

Moments after Nebraska’s win, ESPN made an announcement.

There’s an argument to be made that having Gameday in Lincoln is nothing but a good thing. It gives Nebraska additional national exposure, and can do nothing but help Nebraska’s image in recruiting. While the Buckeyes are a two-touchdown-plus favorite, and there is a distinct possibility of another prime-time humiliation for Nebraska, the presence of Gameday at a program which posted two consecutive 4-8 seasons is a testament to Nebraska’s staying power.

But there’s a darker side to Nebraska getting more unearned attention. Throughout the offseason, the fanbase – and, let’s be honest, the players and the coaches – were bathed in the Kool-Aid of lofty expectations, top-25 rankings, and the trappings of status not yet earned on the field. Sure, the coaches preached all the right things about not having earned anything, but let’s not forget these are college kids having their ears filled with how great they already are.

I refuse to believe all those unearned accolades from the offseason didn’t contribute in part to the slow start against South Alabama and the collapse in the second half against Colorado. Four turnovers and eleven (!) penalties against Illinois – including two on kickoffs as the kicking team – also speaks to a lack of focus and discipline. It’s a disturbing call-back to last year when Frost referred to his squad as playing like “one of the most undisciplined teams in the country.”

Culture change takes time, and one thing Nebraska has clearly not demonstrated is an ability to handle success – the “this is why Nebraska can’t have nice things” syndrome. Memorial Stadium should be electric, with an atmosphere not seen since 2014 Miami, or maybe 2007 USC. And perhaps Nebraska will shock the world and finally get that signature, program-defining win.

If it does, then Nebraska really will have something to puff its chest out about. Until then, basking in unearned glory does little but stunt the growth and potential of a talented squad under a promising and exciting head coach. There’s plenty of glory you can see on Nebraska’s horizon – but getting greedy and claiming it before its earned will bring little but heartache and disappointment.

GBR, baby.

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