CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The wet, windy gray curtain of misery stretched across Memorial Stadium just kept descending lower and lower in the final minutes of Nebraska’s wince-inducing afternoon of football. Dreck in the sky — and on the field.
And yet, before losing 14-13 to Illinois with a dull thud — which led a captain to blow sarcastic kisses to the crowd — the Huskers appeared ready to duck out of town with a Big Ten win. Ready to put off, at least for a week, all the dreariness and negativity that now awaits NU’s program.
Nebraska only needed to run the simplest play — a sneak even — to bleed a half-minute off the clock and put Illinois in the near-impossible position of hitting one of those nine-lateral plays that only work in backyards.
But NU coaches Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf, on third-and-7 at the Illinois 27, didn’t call the simplest play. They hadn’t called such plays most of the day, and they didn’t at the end. They drew up a quarterback bootleg run that Tommy Armstrong either interpreted or improvised into a bootleg pass, which was thrown wide of its target, stopping the clock. Riley, who said afterward Nebraska had no interest in throwing the ball, put his hands to his head in disbelief.
Probably like you did after that play.
And after Illinois went 73 yards in 41 seconds to claim the win.
And after you heard Riley say, no, that’s not what that third down play was supposed to be at all.
“The whole intention of it was a quarterback run,” Riley said. Asked if Armstrong had a pass option, Riley said “No.”
Said Langsdorf: “We had quarterback sweep. It’s a designed run.”
Armstrong declined comment after the game. He walked out of the locker room with headphones on and initially walked by reporters waiting for him. He was flagged down by a reporter as he went to the bus and said he wasn’t talking.
Langsdorf conceded that tight end Cethan Carter was not on the correct side of the formation to “set the edge” and help Armstrong get around the end. Carter was on the other side. He ran a pass route. And true freshman running back Devine Ozigbo, who couldn’t hold on to Armstrong’s poorly thrown ball, indicated in a slightly-muddled postgame interview that he thought he was supposed to run a pass route.
And so all these little errors — a mismanagement of clock over here, a dropped punt over there, a couple misplayed coverages and an insistence to pass the ball in weather fit for a Scottish winter — these all added up to a major blunder, a loss that seemed, several times, rather avoidable. Just like the 33-28 Hail Mary loss to BYU and the 36-33 overtime loss at Miami.
“It was a gut punch,” said linebacker Chris Weber, who finished with 17 tackles.
“I hope we don’t have to weather any more,” Riley said. “That’s rough, three of them out of the first five, right down to the last play.”
An announced, chilled crowd of 40,138 probably didn’t think it’d come down to the final plays. Nebraska took a 13-0 lead into the fourth quarter.
“Anytime you can shut a team out for three quarters, that’s a positive,” defensive end Jack Gangwish said.
The first three quarters will not make any highlight reels. Armstrong made two dramatic plays — a 32-yard scramble and a 55-yard pass to Carter — to help set up 10 first-half points. Sam Foltz’s canny punting — he averaged 46.9 yards on nine boots — helped set up a third-quarter field goal after Foltz pinned Illinois at its own 1. NU had successfully slowed Illinois’ offense, which made up for NU’s baffling struggles — and playcalling — when it played offense. Langsdorf called 31 passes and 34 runs. Armstrong completed just 10 of the passes. Several passes were launched high into a crosswind that Armstrong couldn’t figure out. Receivers dropped several passes. NU consistently tried to run a series of complex screens that mostly didn’t work.
“We were trying to get some rhythm going,” Langsdorf said, adding that he didn’t want to fall into a pattern of running on first and second down and throwing on third. “We had a hard time with it. Whether it was a route or a throw. I thought we had some guys open at times and we just couldn’t get it to them ... we ran the ball pretty well. We did not do well enough in the passing game.”
Said Riley: “I think we had a couple real close chances to make some plays. And I think the coverage lent to us trying some of those.”
Nebraska (2-3 overall, 0-1 in the Big Ten) scored only three points when it had the wind in the third quarter.
The Illini (4-1, 1-0) got a touchdown early in the fourth quarter when two Husker defensive backs forgot to cover receiver Marchie Murdock, who streaked open to the end zone for a 26-yard catch from quarterback Wes Lunt.
But NU forced two more punts, and had finally cobbled together a strong final drive on the backs of Ozigbo and fullback Andy Janovich, who had 11 carries in the game. Janovich’s stumbling 6-yard run on third-and-3 — and back-to-back runs of 8 and 10 yards after that — put the Huskers in winning range.
And then the third-and-7, which will live in Husker infamy.
“Oh, I guess my first reaction was surprise,” Riley said about that play. “After that — whatever.”
It failed, and a fourth-down pass to Janovich failed, too. So Illinois got the ball with 51 seconds left instead of 12 to 15 seconds.
“I know that was hard,” Riley said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t still finish a game, but that was a big blow.”
“I was excited,” Lunt said.
Lunt hit Sam Mays for 15 yards to start the drive, then he found Malik Turner — who had streaked past safety Nate Gerry — for 50 yards down to the Husker 7.
Illinois then needed five plays to get in the end zone. Twice, the Huskers were flagged for pass interference. On the game-winning play, Lunt hit Geronimo Allison for a 1-yard touchdown. Allison spread his arms out while kneeling.
“It was just a shame — for not only the team, but the defense, to finish on that note,” defensive coordinator Mark Banker said. His unit gave up 382 yards and five yards per play. “We’ve just got go back and continue to grind, put together a complete game.”
A complete game eludes Nebraska, and three times, it has bit them right at the end. Nebraska had twice as many penalties as Illinois. It converted just 4 of 17 third downs. Armstrong took a drive-crippling sack that took NU out of field goal range. And somehow, some way, Nebraska was confused on a third-and-7 that this program may struggle to shake off.
Fissures may already be showing. Reporters — including one from The World-Herald — witnessed offensive tackle Alex Lewis blowing kisses to Husker fans after the game. He has not spoken to the media since posting — and later deleting — on social networks that he was done playing for “the state of Nebraska” after he received fan criticism in the wake of the Miami game.
Janovich said the Huskers need to stick together.
“We’ve got to stay strong, really,” Janovich said. “There’s nothing else we can do. We’re all we’ve got.”
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