LINCOLN — Luke McCaffrey took the shotgun snap, faked a handoff and ran left. Three defenders quickly closed in on the Nebraska quarterback.
Then — on the first play from scrimmage — the electric redshirt freshman tried to make a play. Instead of tucking the ball and running for a few yards, he tried to dump it to Wan’Dale Robinson in the left flat. McCaffrey led his receiver too much and bounced the pass, which officials deemed to have gone backward — calling it a fumble.
Illinois recovered, used the short field to score a touchdown three plays later and the Huskers never recovered in a 41-23 loss Saturday.
“You can’t have critical errors,” McCaffrey said. “That was one of a couple that I had.”
McCaffrey looked like someone making his second career start most of the afternoon. The 19-year-old threw three interceptions, abandoned multiple pass plays while logging 26 carries and found himself in third-down situations with an average of 9.8 yards to go. He rarely looked downfield and didn’t complete a pass for more than 16 yards.
It wasn’t all negative for the four-star recruit from Colorado. He led a 12-play, 71-yard touchdown drive after the first Illinois score, finding tight end Austin Allen (6 yards) and receiver Zavier Betts (9 yards) along the way. He finished that drive with a 5-yard touchdown run and led another crisp six-play march to the end zone to open the second half.
But, as coach Scott Frost said afterward, “consistency of execution” continued to hold back McCaffrey and Co. The quarterback overthrew Robinson up the right sideline by at least 5 yards on one first-half attempt and later skipped a pass to Levi Falck. Teammates didn’t help, with drops by freshman wideout Alante Brown, running back Rahmir Johnson and others stalling drives. Center Cam Jurgens was called for a hold at the Illinois 1-yard line that wiped out a fourth-down touchdown and became a field goal before halftime.
“Luke’s a great player, he’s going to be a great player,” Frost said. “Today wasn’t anybody’s best day.”
Said McCaffrey: “The (lack of) attention to detail and the energy I brought to practice showed up in the game.”
Of McCaffrey’s three interceptions, only a deep shot to Falck late in the first half was especially frustrating and off the mark. The first — coming on an early fourth-and-4 when McCaffrey took a bad snap high and to the right and had to improvise — actually saved Nebraska 7 yards of field position than if the Illinois defender had just batted the ball down. Another also came on fourth down late in the third quarter with the Huskers trailing by 21.
Frost said McCaffrey’s game-opening fumble was “not a good decision to do what he did” and that he doesn’t want any Nebraska quarterback running as often as it occurred Saturday. The performance looks worse, he said, when erratic snaps and missed protections factor in.
But there were also moments — perhaps most clearly in the second quarter — when open receivers went undiscovered on fruitless possessions. Meanwhile, McCaffrey scrambled time and again, racking up 122 yards at a 4.7 per carry clip.
“We gotta be able to throw the ball downfield,” Frost said. “I have to look at the tape, but I feel like we had some guys running open downfield. Whether it’s protection or vision or just trusting it and throwing them on time, we gotta be a better football team at throwing the ball down the field. That’s kind of how this offense is built and always has been and we’re not good enough at it right now.”
McCaffrey and junior Adrian Martinez — the two-year starter McCaffrey replaced two weeks ago — both were warming up on the sideline to begin the second half. Martinez didn’t enter the game until 4:10 remained, though, leading a seven-play, 54-yard touchdown drive capped with a short scoring throw to Falck.
Martinez accounted for more than 400 yards of offense last season in Nebraska’s 42-38 win over Illinois. Frost said if coaches thought Martinez gave the Huskers the best chance to win, he would have been on the field more.
The problem isn’t a lack of understanding of the offense, Allen said, considering NU locks them into a certain number of plays each week. It’s about executing those assignments and giving quarterbacks a little extra time to make their reads. Frost said he will continue to simplify the offense as needed “to make sure these young players can be in the right place and do the right thing.”
For now, McCaffrey said, it’s back to studying film and figuring out how his next start can be better than his second one. So moments like that first snap don’t happen again.
“I got stuck trying to make a play,” McCaffrey said. “You can’t try and make plays, you just have to do your job.”