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Lovieball leads to Illinois’ first win over Nebraska in Smith Era

The Illini beat Nebraska in Lincoln for first time since 1924.

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


Head Coach Lovie Smith always says his goal for his team in the takeaway department is at least three per game. In the first half against Nebraska the defense had its trio of takeaways: a fumble recovery from Jake Hansen, and interceptions by Tarique Barnes and Tony Adams. The defense added a fourth takeaway with a Khalan Tolson forced fumble and recovery late in the third quarter. A fifth takeaway came in the fourth with a Hansen interception.

Those takeaways led to 20 points for Illinois.

“No one can take the ball away the way (Hansen) does,” Smith said. “He’s the glue that keeps the defense together.”

With quarterback Brandon Peters back from COVID-19, the Illini were firing on all cylinders. Illinois beat Nebraska 41-23 in Lincoln on Saturday, for the second win of 2020 for Lovie Smith and the Illini — and Smith’s first over the Cornhuskers.

“It’s always good when you have your starter back. Brandon is an excellent football player, he can run and of course he can throw.”

Starting strong was something that had plagued the Illini all season long. In fact, the team hadn't scored a first-quarter point since last year’s Redbox Bowl. However, on Saturday the Illini’s offense was clicking.

“That momentum swing early in the game was huge. Getting that turnover, I feel like it gave us some confidence,” Peters aid. “Its huge when you can consistency put some points on the board.”

The ground game was working once again for Illinois. Chase Brown tallied career touchdowns number one and two in the first quarter and finished the game with over 100 yards for the second straight game.

“When you can run the football like that and can throw it the way Brandon (Peters) and our receivers caught it today, you usually know how the score turns out,” Smith said.

He was spelled by Mike Epstein, who tallied over 100 yards and a touchdown as well. Peters even got in on the touchdown game, with a one-yard QB sneak of his own and 36 yards rushing.

“I got a little help from Mike Epstein,” Peters said. “He let me know about it, he said he pushed me in.”

The Peters to Josh Imatorbhebhe connection was back in full swing. Peters’ first passing touchdown of the year was a 28-yard strike into the mitts of Imatorbhebhe in the first half. The senior receiver finished with four catches for 71 yards and the touchdown. Peters finished with 205 yards through the air.

“He led the offense,” Smith said. “You saw the way he played today.”

For the Nebraska offense, it was hard to get anything going with four turnovers. Luke McCaffrey had just 134 yards passing but tallied 122 yards rushing and added two touchdowns on the ground before getting pulled for Adrian Martinez.

It was Martinez who helped Nebraska put up over 600 yards of offense against the Illini defense a year ago. But he couldn’t save the day for the Cornhuskers on Saturday.

For the first time in 96 years, Illinois (2-3) has beaten Nebraska (1-3) in Lincoln.

“Whenever something like that happens of course its a big deal,” Smith said.

Moments that Mattered

  • Hot Start: For the first time this season, the Illini both scored first and scored in the first quarter. A Jake Hansen fumble recovery led to a shot field and an Illinois touchdown.
  • Fourth be with you: With 2:32 left in the first quarter, Nebraska decided to go for it on fourth down on the Illini 42-yard line. A missed snap and a scramble later, Luke McCaffrey was picked off by Tarique Barnes.
  • Fourth be with you Pt. 2: Nebraska was looking to narrow the score to 21-14 with a fourth and goal touchdown from two-yards. But a holding call forced the play to be wiped off the scoreboard and Nebraska had to settle for a field goal.

Stat stuffers

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In case you missed it:

Tweet(s) of the game

He said it

“We get off the bus running the ball,” Lovie Smith said.

Who’s Next

The road gets tough for Illinois who hosts No. 3 Ohio State next Saturday at Memorial Stadium. The game time and network covering the game has not yet been announced.