CHAMPAIGN — The University of Illinois used its bye week to convince itself it didn’t need to make a change at quarterback.
Chayce Crouch, the starter through three games, would find the missing juice in the Illini passing game. He’d give Illinois the balance it badly needed in Friday night’s Big Ten opener against Nebraska.
Crouch used his legs the way everyone knew he could. He ran like a warrior. But his arm was unable to ignite a passing threat and the play-calling on key third downs suggested there was little confidence that he could do it.
Nebraska (3-2, 2-0) was the team with the balance Illinois hoped to discover and the Huskers used it to claim a 28-6 victory at Memorial Stadium.
So let the quarterback controversy gain even more traction. With Crouch able to generate just 99 yards through the air, Illinois was outgained 411-199 yards.
Could Jeff George Jr. have done better? Illinois’ offensive line had its own struggles. But somehow, a group of seemingly talented wide receivers is not being showcased.
After the game, head coach Lovie Smith said Illinois is simply not currently in position to strike through the air.
“We have to play better, it’s as simple as that,” Smith said. “A theme was to play a lot harder than we did the last time (a 47-23 loss at South Florida) and be more physical but I was kind of disappointed in our effort.
“Passing game-wise … we’re just not set up … we’re not a passing team, it’s as simple as that, as far as protection, accuracy throwing the ball and catching it.”
Nebraska had just three possessions in the first half and scored touchdowns on all of them. Deftly mixing short, accurate passes and an effective running game, the Huskers kept the Illini defense on its heels. Missed tackles didn’t help. Neither did a targeting penalty early in the game that resulted in the ejection of Illinois’ freshman safety, Bennett Williams.
Unable to piece together the plays to beat a Nebraska team that came in 2-2 and had been dealing with its own struggles, a crowd of 43,058 found inspiration for just one truly big cheer of the night. And that came at halftime with the introduction of Illini Athletic Hall of Fame inductee Dick Butkus.
Nebraska got on the board first on an unusual drive that included a targeting call that resulted in the ejection of Williams.
On third-and-10 from the Nebraska 12, quarterback Tanner Lee fired a pass to tight end Tyler Hoppes. The ball popped free and was called incomplete on the field, but when Williams crashed into the tight end, a late flag ruled he’d caused the breakup with a hit to the head.
That gave Nebraska a first down and the big play came when Lee fired a strike over the middle to De’Mornay Pierson-El, who broke free and raced 45 yards for a touchdown with 8:57 left in the opening period.
A myriad of miscues made it a bad look for the Illini.
There were enough missed tackles to bring back nightmarish memories from the Tim Beckman era. Twice Kendrick Foster bumbled the kickoff, having to fall on the ball to avoid a turnover. Crouch never found a comfortable groove when throwing and his Hail Mary heave to end the first half was underthrown and found neither Hail nor Mary, landing instead in the arms of a Nebraska defender.
Meanwhile, Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee avoided the mistakes that have dogged him through the first four games. He came to Champaign having thrown nine interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns.
Against Illinois (2-2, 0-1), he consistently got the ball out quickly and on target. He was 11 of 13 for 167 yards and two touchdowns in the first half and did not turn the ball over. When he needed more time, he got it because the Illini pass rush could not make him hurry. For the game he passed for 246 yards and three touchdowns.
After Nebraska had taken a 7-0 lead early, Illinois answered with a promising drive that took the ball to first-and-goal at the Nebraska 3.
On first down, Ra’Von Bonner was stopped for no gain. On second down, Crouch was thrown for a five-yard loss.
Then on third-and-eight, needing a well-placed pass, the call was a handoff to Reggie Corbin, who gained one yard. Boos rained down as Illinois settled for a 25-yard field goal by Chase McLaughlin.
Nebraska did not settle on its next drive. Instead, the Huskers drove 75 yards in eight plays, capping it off with Devine Ozigbo’s 15-yard touchdown run that included a missed tackle by Illini linebacker Tre Watson. That made it 14-3 with 10:38 to go in the second quarter.
Illinois mounted another drive, making it to the Nebraska 35. But on third-and-eight from the Nebraska 33 — again needing a pass completion to keep the drive going — the call was a handoff to Foster, who was tossed down for a loss of five. More boos and a punt followed.
Nebraska never stopped and never had to punt. An 89-yard drive that included a 4-for-4 passing effort by Lee found the end zone again. Lee’s six-yard flip to tight end Tyler Hoppes finished the first-half scoring and gave the Huskers a 21-3 lead.
Nebraska converted on 7 of 11 third downs, a key factor in Smith’s mind. “They killed us on third downs and kept drives going,” he said. “That was the story of the night defensively.”
Illinois had some chances in the third quarter.
An opening drive looked promising and the third-down dilemma was solved by having Trenard Davis, a wide receiver who played quarterback in high school, throw a completion to keep it alive.
The drive stalled at the Nebraska 7 and Illinois settled for another 25-yard field goal, cutting the Nebraska lead to 21-6.
Soon after, a Nebraska fumble was recovered by Illini safety Stanley Green at the Husker 32. But Crouch was hit while trying to throw on first down, resulting in a fumble (Illinois recovered) and a loss of two. Crouch tried to run on second down for no gain. And on third down Crouch was sacked for a loss of 12.
A punt followed. More boos.
Illinois gets its first taste of Big Ten life on the road when it travels to Iowa City to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes at 11 a.m., Saturday.