Yeah, that first Nebraska game was as bad as it looked.
So what does that mean for fourth-year coach Scott Frost? That’s the awkward question in Lincoln that will be asked for the remainder of the 2021 season.
How much loyalty will be extended to Frost if the Huskers don’t rebound after Week 0? This was wrong. Illinois recovered 28 unanswered points in a 30-22 victory that was supposed to be a big moment for the Huskers.
“It looked like the same movie,” Frost said at his postgame press conference. “I told the players that it can’t be the same movie.”
This time, the plot twist belonged to Illinois backup quarterback Artur Sitkowski, who replaced injured starter Brandon Peters in the first quarter of Bret Bielema’s debut. Sitkowski finished 12 of 15 for 124 yards and two TDs. Illinois racked up 167 yards on 3.5 yards per carry and controlled time of possession in nearly 10 minutes. This is the same Sitkowski who threw eight touchdowns and 20 interceptions in his three-year career at Rutgers.
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The Illinois also received all kinds of help from Nebraska. A failed punt return by Cam Taylor-Britt led to a safety. A questionable rude from the passer call set up Illinois’ first TD. Then Adrian Martinez fumbled with 37 seconds left at the half and Illinois’ Calvin Hart Jr. came back for a 41-yard touchdown.
Illinois led 16-9 at the half, then scored touchdowns in its first two drives of the second half for a 30-9 lead. “Bielema Ball” was in full effect on the first day.
So why is it taking so long in Nebraska? The Huskers made it interesting. Martinez scored on a 75-yard scoring run, led a scoring drive in the fourth quarter, and had one last chance to lead a game-tying drive (which could have been a winning drive if it weren’t for two extra points lost). .
The Huskers couldn’t run the ball any other way. Nebraska had 20 carries for 39 yards in the first half. Not counting Martinez’s long run, they had 39 attempts and 85 yards. Martinez finished with 16 of 33 passes for 233 yards, but also had five sacks.
Martinez has been with Frost since the beginning since 2018, and it’s not just his. That said, Nebraska hasn’t had the consistency as a quarterback needed to win big in the Big Ten. This was just the latest case of too little, too late.
Illinois controlled the game, and that was a solid building block for Bielema, a Big Ten player and assistant in Iowa and a former Wisconsin head coach. The rebuilding of Illinois began on that positive note that Frost has yet to find.
For Nebraska, however, the questions are more heated. The Huskers have road games at No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 4 Ohio State on the schedule. The NCAA investigation into Frost’s inappropriate workouts persists, and the likelihood of a change seems unlikely given Nebraska’s brutal November schedule.
A winning season seems, at best, a stretch. The Huskers had to have this game. Instead, they gave this one to Illinois.
For Frost, this is now a one-season referendum that will be awkward from week to week. That question “If not Frost, then who?” It’s going to show up, and the reveal could be, “Someone like Bielema.” That’s the simple formula that wins in Big Ten West places like Wisconsin, Iowa, and Northwestern. If Frost can’t do it, hire a Big Ten trainer.
Paul Chryst, Kirk Ferentz and Pat Fitzgerald are the Big Ten for life, and Bielema is back where he belongs. Unless, of course, that loyalty to Frost continues with new athletic director Trev Alberts, who has already said Frost is not training for his job this season.
Still, the hot seat rose a few degrees Saturday. How long until progress is justified? How long will Nebraska stay with frost? How long will they be willing to watch the same movie? Those are burning questions now, especially after Bielema built goodwill in Champaign in four hours.
They might have been delayed until the Oklahoma game, but the loss to Illinois was a sobering reminder of just how far Nebraska needs to go.