Illinois uses second-half momentum to take down Nebraska in season opener

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Cameron Krasucki

Senior defensive back Tony Adams holds back Nebraska wide receiver Samori Toure during the game at Memorial Stadium Saturday afternoon. The Illini came out on top with a 30-22 win against Nebraska.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

The Bret Bielema era is off to a strong start. After a back-and-forth first half, the Illini broke the game open early in the second half to the tune of a 30-22 win. 

The first quarter was relatively uneventful, with Illinois and Nebraska trading punts until Illinois punted and came up with a safety with around four minutes left. On the next drive, Mike Epstein exploded for a 45-yard rush only for Illinois to be quelled by a sack to Brandon Peters, which took him out of the game on the very next play. Artur Sitkowski came in to relieve Peters, but was unsuccessful and absorbed a sack himself on his first play of the game, forcing Illinois into a missed 55-yard field goal attempt. 

Before being put into the game, Bielema pulled Sitkowski aside and gave him some words of encouragement.

“I just wanted to let him know that it didn’t happen by chance that he was in this position,” Bielema said. “As you guys get to know him, he has a really strong presence and awareness. He talks, acts, walks and reacts like a quarterback. I didn’t have any thoughts about how he was going to handle the moment. What I didn’t know was how the guys were going to react to him. After that play, I think the guys reacted really well.”

Sitkowski had experienced a lot of bumps at Rutgers prior to transferring to Illinois this summer. In 2018, his only year with major reps, he threw 18 interceptions and only four touchdowns. 

“I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, but I’ve learned a lot,” Sitkowski said. “And that’s what life’s all about. You get yourself back and going. It was a great team win.”

Nebraska marched down the field towards the end of the first quarter, eventually getting the ball down to the Illinois 6-yard line before punching it in for a touchdown at the beginning of the second quarter. However, Nebraska’s kicker, Connor Culp, missed the extra point to keep Illinois within striking distance. 

The Cornhuskers maintained that same momentum through the early second quarter on the back of a 43-yard pass from Adrian Martinez to Oliver Martin. However, the Illini defense fought back in bend-but-don’t-break fashion and kept them to a field goal on their second trip to the red zone. 

After it looked like the game could be opening up to a Nebraska blowout, the Illini were able to pull off some magic and drive down the field for their first touchdown of the season behind Sitkowski. Sitkowski started the drive by throwing what looked to be an interception on his first pass of the season, but the Illini were bailed out by a roughing the passer call that granted them 32 free yards to fuel their stagnant offense. 

After that, the offense started humming. It didn’t take long for the Illini to score behind a few short rushes by Mike Epstein and a 7-yard pass by Sitkowski, plus a 1-yard rush by Epstein, eventually allowed Illinois to tie the game at nine. 

On what looked to be their last drive of the half, the Illini fumbled the ball when Donny Navarro III had it knocked away on what would have been a sizable passing play. Just a minute later, however, Keith Randolph Jr. strip-sacked Martinez, and Calvin Hart Jr. recovered it for a 46-yard touchdown.

Illinois opened the second half with authority on both sides of the ball. On offense, they mechanically traveled 75 yards behind a varied attack led by Sitkowski. The quarterback immediately looked more comfortable, leveraging his arm and legs to display his versatility. Aside from his shaky start, it’d be difficult to tell this was Sitkowski’s first game as an Illini after transferring from Rutgers in the offseason. 

On the defensive side of the ball, it seemed that the Illini had figured out how to contain the Nebraska offense after halftime. Illinois kept Nebraska without a first down on their first drive of the second half, including a 7-yard sack by Seth Coleman to force a punt.

The Illini seemingly broke the game open after Sitkowski took a risk and nailed a 45-yard pass to a tightly guarded Deuce Spann, setting them up for a 1-yard touchdown run by Jakari Norwood to go ahead 30-9. 

Despite the deficit for Nebraska, they remained competitive in the game with Martinez going for a 75-yard touchdown run to start the next drive. From that point on, the game slowed down with Illinois working to run out the clock and protect their lead. After a fourth-down stop with under a minute left, Illinois walked away with the eight-point win in Bielema’s first game in Champaign.

After the game, Bielema was deferential about his impact on the win. One emphasis he made was the difference of having stands full of fans.

“It’d been so long since they’d been able to feel a crowd,” Bielema said. “Even though it wasn’t totally sold out, it was definitely an energetic crowd. I think we sold out the student section, which was absolutely awesome to see. I think we, as players and coaches, have to be able to recognize and honor that.”

 

@WesHollenberg

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