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Illinois miscues lead to blowout loss at Nebraska, 54-35

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The Illini couldn’t keep their momentum rolling Saturday.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois entered the day with a chance to move within one game of bowl eligibility.

And Illinois ended the day looking like anything but the team that demolished Minnesota one week ago.

The Illini missed their opportunity at pulling to .500 on the season with a 54-35 loss to Nebraska at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. If Illinois still wants to qualify for its first bowl game since the 2014 season this year, it will take wins over a ranked Iowa team and a Northwestern team still looking for a trip to the Big Ten Championship.

Overall, the path to six wins is muddier after a three-possession loss to a team that entered a mid-November game with two wins.

Illinois QB AJ Bush rushed for three first-half touchdowns and shined in his return to his former school, but the former Husker signal caller did not get enough help from the rest of his depleted team in Illinois’ fourth conference loss in its last five games. Bush finished with a 187 yards — the most in program history for a quarterback — adding the three scores and two interceptions.

Apart from Bush, Illinois (4-6, 2-5 Big Ten) was a very different squad than the one that blew out Minnesota, 55-21, last Saturday. In the Illini’s bid for their first back-to-back Big Ten wins since 2014, Illinois allowed 38 first-half points, muffed two punts (leading to 10 Cornhusker points) and dropped a handful of passes.

Against Minnesota last week, it was Illinois winning the turnover battle and playing clean football that gave the Illini a comfortable cushion throughout. In Lincoln, the miscues last into the second half as Illinois attempted to mount a comeback bid.

Starting the second half receiving the ball, wide receiver Dominic Stampley botched a Bush pass that fell into the hands of a Nebraska defensive back for Bush’s sixth interception of the season. The Cornhuskers (3-7, 2-5 Big Ten) drove down the field, converting three fourth downs en route to Devine Ozigbo’s second rushing touchdown of the game. Illinois’ defense struggled throughout, conceding more than 300 yards on the ground — a mark topped by Ozigbo’s second 60-yard run of the game in the fourth quarter.

But more than just mistakes ruined Illinois’ effort for win No. 5 on Saturday, with head coach Lovie Smith’s club dealing with a multitude of injuries. Running back Mike Epstein missed another game Saturday, while tailback Ra’Von Bonner made a return to the field. Bonner’s role was elevated when running back Reggie Corbin — who hit the 1,000-yard mark for the season in the first half — left the game late in the first half with a right leg injury.

Bonner added a garbage time rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter following Illinois’ second takeaway of the game. Dre Brown added another Illini score with just over three minutes left in the game.

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED

Illinois muffs a punt: Nebraska opened the game with three touchdowns on three drives, and Illinois finally got its first defensive stop in the second quarter. Carlos Sandy fumbled Isaac Armstrong’s 37-yard punt, giving Nebraska field position on the Illini’s side of the 50.

Illinois bent but didn’t break, allowing only a field goal, holding the deficit at just 10 points, 24-14, midway through the second.

Illinois muffs another punt: Later in the second quarter, Illinois began mounting a comeback to close the game entering the break, but another muffed punt ended those dreams. After Bush’s third rushing score of the half, Illinois’ defense forced Nebraska to a punt at midfield with under a minute remaining in the second.

Armstrong’s punt was fielded by Jordan Holmes, but he dropped it, giving the Cornhuskers the ball at the 7. Nebraska freshman QB Adrian Martinez converted a third-down pass for a score to push the Cornhuskers ahead 38-21 at the half.

THE BIG STAT

Before exiting the game in the second quarter with a leg injury, Corbin ran nine times for 59 yards, becoming the first Illini to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since Mikel Leshoure in 2010.

Leshoure ran for a program-record 1,697 during the 2010 campaign.

PLAY OF THE GAME

It does not make up for Illinois’ turnovers and muffed punts earlier in the game, but Tony Adams’ interception — assisted by Quan Martin — was quite the impressive play of concentration to get a redzone stop.

Illinois had its punt blocked on the ensuing possession, leading to a Nebraska safety.

And an honorable mention for Bush running into an official, forcing the alternate official into the game.

UP NEXT

Illinois hosts its Senior Day for its handful of seniors next Saturday against Iowa at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. Iowa has won four straight games in the series.

The game time will not be announced until Sunday.

With a win, Illinois would have its most victories since the 2015 season (5).

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