Coming off its first bye week of the season, Illinois looked significantly better than it had in its past two games, but ultimately ran out of steam in the fourth quarter, losing 31-16 to Nebraska in Lincoln. Illinois led 16-10 entering the fourth quarter, but the Illini totaled just 17 yards in the fourth quarter on 10 plays, while Nebraska relentlessly pounded the ball on the ground to finish out the game.
Here are three things we learned from Saturday’s game.
This game came down to one drive
On a drive that can only be described as ‘death by 1,000 cuts’ Nebraska took the lead by holding the ball for more than 10 minutes on an 18-play drive. What made it even more frustrating was the fact that Illinois had the drive stopped on two separate occasions: Chunky Clements sacked Tommy Armstrong on 3rd-and-18 but pulled him down from behind for a horsecollar penalty, then Darius Mosely was whistled for pass interference while breaking up a pass on fourth down. Nebraska converted another fourth down inside the Illinois 5-yard line, and the play stood upon further review, thanks to a potentially favorable spot from the officials. From there, Illinois went 3-and-out, and Nebraska took another 11 plays for a backbreaking touchdown.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn has been replaced at running back. And that’s a good thing
Vaughn figured to be the feature back from the start of the season, but he seems to have been replaced after a slow start to the season. Entering today’s game, he had just 187 yards on 40 carries over the first three games of the season, and he totaled just one yard on one carry on Saturday. Reggie Corbin and Kendrick Foster split duties pretty evenly, and both delivered a spectacular performance. They’re both shifty backs with great elusiveness that breathed new lift into the Illini’s rushing game. For this offense to be effective, it needs to have some semblance of balance between passing and rushing, and it was that balance that kept the Illini in the game Saturday.
This is what we expected from Lovie Smith and his staff
I still haven’t fully processed the blowout loss to Western Michigan, but the bye week did wonders for this Illinois team. While Illinois still has a ways to go in terms of talent compared to other Big Ten teams, I expected that Lovie could coach well enough to keep them in games. This was hardly a perfect game — settling for field goals in the red zone, too many penalties, etc. — but it was a welcome improvement over the Illini’s last performance. There are still some things to hash out, such as another flat performance in the fourth quarter, but at least it’s improvement.