CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In a wild, weird Big Ten opener, Nebraska came back from 14 down to beat Illinois 42-38.
The Huskers outgained Illinois 690 to 299, earned more than twice as many first downs and averaged 7.0 yards per play. But the Illini turned four Nebraska fumbles into 21 points and led most of the game by at least two scores.
But 28 points in the second half lifted NU over the Illini, breaking a school record eight-game losing streak on the road, and pulling the Huskers to 3-1 on the year.
It was also the program’s 900th victory. Nebraska joined Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama and Texas in the 900-win club.
Adrian Martinez struggled early, but finished with 327 yards passing and 118 yards on the ground. Freshman Wan’Dale Robinson was a workhorse, carrying the ball 18 times in place of an injured Maurice Washington for 89 yards and a rushing touchdown. He also caught eight passes for 79 yards and two more scores. Washington had 89 rushing yards on 10 carries, but was taken to the locker room in the second quarter and didn’t return. JD Spielman caught seven passes for 159 yards.
And though those stats stand out, 11 penalties for 119 yards and four fumbles kept the double-digit underdogs in the game.
Illini running back Reggie Corbin ran for 134 yards on 20 carries. Quarterback Brandon Peters completed 9 of 21 passes for 78 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.
Corbin got the party started early with a 66-yard touchdown run on the second play of the game. A sloppy exchange between Martinez and Washington turned into a fumble and gave Illinois the ball back at their own 33-yard line. Brandon Peters hit Josh Imatorbhebhe on a go-route from 26 yards, and Illinois took a 14-0 lead with 8:12 left.
Nebraska responded with a Martinez pass to tight end Jack Stoll from 6 yards out to cut the lead to seven.
A perfect Illini punt placed the ball at Nebraska’s 1-yard-line at the beginning of the second quarter. Mills took the handoff, then fumbled, which was recovered by Illinois at the 2-yard-line. RaVon Bonner punched it in on the next play for a 21-7 lead.
Nebraska’s offense countered with a three-and-out.
But Cam Taylor-Britt then bailed NU out on with a pick.
The offense finally woke up after that. Martinez started it off with a 26-yard pass to Spielman. Washington took a direct snap 25 yards. Then Martinez threw a simple pass to Robinson on third-and-6. The true freshman shook a defensive back and scored from 27 yards for a 21-14 lead with 8:20 left.
Nebraska had a chance to tie the game late in the first, but a holding penalty on Brenden Jaimes negated a 20-yard run from Mills, and a dropped pass in Illini territory forced a punt. So the score remained at the break.
Illinois shut down NU on the opening drive of the half, then moved easily through Nebraska’s defense — running for 12.2 yards per carry — to take a 28-14 lead in the opening minutes of the second half.
A 3-yard shuffle pass from Martinez to Robinson that ended in the end zone closed the gap again to seven after a seven-play, 75-yard drive.
The Nebraska defense forced a punt, and punter Blake Hayes put NU inside their own 20 for the fourth time. On second down, Martinez hit Spielman for 20 yards, but the ball was ripped away and recovered by the Illini — Nebraska’s third fumble of the day on their own side of the field. Illinois didn’t take advantage of the extra possession and gave the ball right back on a three-and-out.
Nebraska then fumbled immediately — for the fourth time. The ball was swatted out of Martinez’s hand and recovered after the play was blown dead, and the fumble was upheld after a review. This time, Illinois scored on a 10-yard touchdown from Peters to push the lead back to 14 at 35-21.
The Illini offense ran for 221 yards Saturday and 5.8 yards per carry. The Husker defense allowed their previous three opponents to about 2 yards per rush.
Nebraska then rattled off 14 straight points after a nine-play drive in 3:29 capped off by Mills from 14 yards to pull to 35-27. The extra point by Lane McCallum was blocked. Mills pounded in his second score of the day from two yards after an Illini three-and-out. Martinez dove at the pylon for the two-point conversation to tie the game at 35 with 14:29 left.
“He (Martinez) is a good player. I’m glad he wears the scarlet and cream,” said Nebraska coach Scott Frost. “He goes in and wants to take over a game. He is clearly capable of that.”
Illinois kicker James McCourt hit a 47-yard field goal to take a slight lead about two minutes later.
Martinez led Nebraska right back to the red zone, with a 13-yard pass to Robinson to start the drive, then two different scrambles of 10 and 25 to get the Huskers to the 1-yard line.
Robinson finished the drive from a yard out for the 42-38 lead, his third score of the night.
Nebraska’s defense held on a third down, and Martinez took off on the next drive for 44 yards to keep NU in business.
McCallum made a 22-yard field goal, but Nebraska was called for a false start. He then hit a 27-yarder off the upright, giving Illinois the ball with two minutes left to win.
Lamar Jackson hit Peters for what appeared to be a fumble, but that was overturned, giving Illini another shot. On fourth-and-10, Peters’ pass was knocked incomplete by Marquel Dismuke.
And after almost four hours, Nebraska survived.