Yes, that Nebraska opener was as bad as it looked.
So what does that mean for fourth-year coach Scott Frost? That’s the uncomfortable question in Lincoln that will be asked for the rest of the 2021 season.
How much loyalty will be extended to Frost if the Huskers don’t recover after Week 0? This was bad. Illinois rattled off 28 unanswered points in a 30-22 victory that was supposed to be a show-me moment for the Huskers.
“It looked like the same movie,” Frost said in his postgame press conference. “I told the players 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 grinded out 167 yards on 3.5 yards per carry, and controlled time of possession by almost 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 Illini had all kinds of help from Nebraska, too. A botched punt return by Cam Taylor-Britt led to a safety. A questionable roughing the passer call set up Illinois’ first TD. Then, Adrian Martinez fumbled with 37 seconds left in the half, and Illinois’ Calvin Hart Jr. returned for a 41-yard TD.
Illinois led 16-9 at half, then scored touchdowns on its first two drives of the second half for a 30-9 lead. “Bielema Ball” was in full effect on Day 1.
So what’s taking so long in Nebraska? The Huskers made it interesting. Martinez scored on a 75-yard TD run, led a fourth-quarter TD drive and had one last chance to lead a game-tying drive (which might have been a game-winning drive if not for two missed extra points).
The Huskers couldn’t run the ball otherwise. 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 16 of 33 for 233 yards, but he also took five sacks.
Martinez has been with Frost from the start since 2018, and it’s not solely on him. That said, Nebraska has not had the consistency at quarterback necessary 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-bred player and assistant at Iowa and former Wisconsin head coach. The Illini rebuild started 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 improper workouts from Frost lingers, and the likelihood of a turnaround seems unlikely given Nebraska’s brutal November schedule.
A winning season seems like a stretch at best. The Huskers had to have this game. Instead, they gave this one to Illinois.
For Frost, this now is a season-long referendum that will be uncomfortable on a week-to-week basis. That question “If not Frost, then who?” Is going to pop up, and the revelation might be, “Someone like Bielema.” That’s the no-frills formula that wins at Big Ten West locales such as Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern. If Frost can’t get it done, then hire a Big Ten coach.
Paul Chryst, Kirk Ferentz and Pat Fitzgerald are Big Ten lifers, and Bielema is back where he belongs. Unless, of course, that loyalty to Frost continues with new athletic director Trev Alberts, who already has said Frost isn’t coaching for his job this season.
Still, the hot seat ticked up a few degrees Saturday. How long until progress will be warranted? How long will Nebraska stick with Frost? How long will they be willing to watch the same movie? Those are burning questions now, especially after Bielema built good-will in Champaign in four hours.
They could have been delayed until the Oklahoma game, but the loss to Illinois was a sobering reminder of how far Nebraska needs to come.