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Illinois tops Nebraska to usher in Bielema era, CFB season

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On one Saturday in August, the Illini were the better Big Ten team.

Brad Repplinger

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new era beckons. And this one looks different.

After a decade of (mostly) misery for Illinois Football, the debut of head coach Bret Bielema gave Illini nation plenty to cheer about Saturday afternoon in a 30-22 win over Nebraska.

The Illini, now back-to-back winners against the Cornhuskers (0-1, 0-1 Big Ten) for the first time in nearly a century, withstood the loss of a starting quarterback, a missed field goal, and hot weather to open both the Big Ten and college football season with a victory on the national stage.

Once known under a certain coach as “Lovieball,” the Illini found a recipe for success early on in winning the field position battle and capitalizing on their opponent’s mistakes.

While it was Brandon Peters’ arm that was supposed to carry Illinois’ offense in 2021, it was the sturdy leg of punter Blake Hayes getting the Illini (1-0, 1-0 Big Ten) on the board in the first quarter. Hayes punted twice in the game’s opening possessions, pinning the Huskers inside the five, and then into the endzone in a wild play that ended with a safety.

In front of a sold out student section, Illinois led 2-0 at the end of the first, but the Huskers were knocking at the door. Running back Markese Stepp was the first to get Nebraska on the board with a 2-yard score, but the Huskers failed to convert on the PAT.

Illinois’ offense didn’t find much momentum with Peters, who went down in the first with an apparent left shoulder injury. That brought in Rutgers transfer QB Art Sitkowski for his Illini debut.

After a quick three and out with Scarlet Knight transplant under center, Adrian Martinez and the Nebraska offense countered with an 8-play, 60-yard drive to put the Cornhuskers up, 9-2, midway through the second quarter.

A successful challenge for Scott Frost overturned a short touchdown pass from Sitkowski to Jakari Norwood, but a play later, Mike Epstein capitalized from the half-yard line to knot things up at 9 with just under three to go in the first half.

Then, after a promising drive where Donny Navarro coughed one up inside Husker territory with under a minute to go, the Illini created a little turnover magic of their own. Keith Randolph Jr. notched a strip sack that Calvin Hart Jr. scooped and scored to put Illinois on top, 16-9, at the break.

A commanding 7-minute, 14-play, 75-yard drive to open the second half extended Illinois’ lead to 14 and put the Illini in the driver’s seat for good. They tacked on another touchdown thanks to an Isaiah Williams jet sweep and led Nebraska 30-16 entering the last frame. With a multi-score lead, Bielema’s squad doubled down on its ground attack, nearly doubling Nebraska’s time of possession and doing just enough to hold the Cornhuskers at bay.

With roughly two and a half minutes left, Martinez and the Huskers marched 76 yards for a score, but their second PAT miss of the day made it a 30-22 game. That was as close as it’d get.

STAT STUFFERS

  • Mike Epstein: 75 yards, 16 attempts, 1 TD
  • Artur Sitkowski: 12-15, 125 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT
  • Calvin Hart Jr.: 6 tackles, 2 solo, 1 sacks, 1.5 TFL, 1 FR, 1 TD
  • Tony Adams: 11 tackles, 10 solo
  • Sydney Brown: 9 tackles, 6 solo
  • Devon Witherspoon: 4 tackles, 4 solo, 4 PBUs
  • Blake Hayes: 6 punts, 272 yards, 3 inside the 20

SOUND SMART

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS

I mean, COME ON, Blake Hayes. This is not fair.

Blake Hayes sorcery continued...

TWEET(S) OF THE GAME

Ayo never left, he just moved across Kirby.

UP NEXT

The Illini welcome the Roadrunners of UTSA to Champaign next Saturday, Sept. 4 at 6:30 p.m. CT in Illinois’ first nonconference matchup of the 2021 season.