CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Scott Frost pumped his fist the slightest bit, then veered toward a small group of fans who had, along with the Nebraska football coach, lived through all the ups and downs of a Saturday night shootout, where it seemed the Huskers had as many bullets for their own feet as they did for Illinois.
Frost made his way down the short line of supporters. A fist bump here. A thank you there. He’d just captured his first road win as NU’s coach. He’s also won the 900th game in program history. The chasm between those two numbers explains both the challenge in front of Frost and the larger expectations he and the rest of his staff carry.
Nebraska nearly collapsed under that weight. Cold start. Penalties, injuries and balls loose on an aging artificial turf. NU was tripping on a divisional doormat right before it rapped on the door of the league’s top program.
The nightmare scenario for NU’s start to Big Ten play hit with the same force Illinois used to cause all those fumbles. Doom stood before the Huskers, ready to crush them with a two-touchdown deficit after a fourth fumble.
The Huskers woke up just in time with a 42-38 win with a true freshman dynamo — Wan’Dale Robinson — serving as the alarm clock. The kid in the No. 1 jersey — 89 yards rushing and 79 yards receiving, three touchdowns, including the game-winner — didn’t panic.
“We got one there,” Frost said of Robinson, the top-100 prospect and gem of NU’s 2019 recruiting class. “We got a real guy there. Not just from a talent perspective, but from a heart perspective. He wanted that ball, he wanted to take over that game. In a lot of ways, he did. I’m glad he’s wearing scarlet and cream.”
Said Robinson: “It felt really good. I had to maximize the opportunities I had today.”
The sophomore in the No. 2 jersey, Adrian Martinez, didn’t panic either, and played one of his best games — 327 yards passing, 118 rushing, three total touchdowns and a diving two-point conversion that tied the game in the fourth quarter. He led three straight touchdown drives of 64, 75 and 70 yards after NU fell behind 35-21. He helped NU run a whopping 98 plays for 690 yards.
“I hear the whispers — he’s tentative, he’s not playing well,” Frost said. “Nobody’s going to be saying that after tonight, the way he ran and finished the game.”
That’s what Frost said the team talked about all week. No fear. Playing fast. And, when it mattered, NU stayed “steely-eyed,” Martinez said.
“It would have been real easy to give up,” Martinez said. “… And we turned it around, guys didn’t lose confidence, stayed steely-eyed, started doing our job. It was a big team win, I think, for us.”
Nebraska fell back on its training, Frost said.
“Nobody panicking, nobody worrying, just going out and playing,” Frost said. “And, on the entire sideline, I didn’t see anyone panic, I didn’t see anyone worry. I’m really happy for the guys to overcome what we overcame.”
Like four fumbles that led to 21 Illinois points. Or 11 penalties, several of which were drive-killers. Or officiating that constantly interrupted the flow of the game with reviews, clarifications and occasional confusion. Or a missed field goal late in the fourth quarter that only had to be attempted because Nebraska couldn’t convert a first-and-goal from the 1.
The fumbles — two from Martinez, one each from Dedrick Mills and JD Spielman — were foremost on Frost’s mind. He even referenced the ball drills used by his mentor, legendary Husker coach Tom Osborne.
“I try to do the same things he did,” Frost said. “We can’t spot teams advantages like that.”
Because of its own mistakes and poor execution, Nebraska endured a nightmare start to the game. After a bad run fit by NU safety Marquel Dismuke, Illinois running back Reggie Corbin bolted through a big hole, stiff-armed safety Cam Taylor-Britt at the Husker 35 and romped 66 yards for a touchdown on the game’s second play.
Nebraska’s first two offensive possessions ended in a turnover on downs and a Martinez fumble; Illinois converted the latter into a touchdown when quarterback Brandon Peters floated a 26-yard touchdown pass to Josh Imatorbhebhe over the coverage of NU cornerback Dicaprio Bootle.
Halfway through the first quarter, Nebraska, caught flat-footed at the game’s start, found itself in a 14-0 hole.
Martinez led a 10-play 75-yard touchdown drive — punctuated by a key fourth-down conversion from Mills — to halve Illinois’ lead, but the fumble bug emerged at the start of the second quarter when Mills lost his third fumble of the season. The Illini recovered at the NU 2 and punched in another score on the next play.
Illinois’ student section — packed to the gills thanks to discounted tickets — danced and sang. And while Nebraska cut the lead by halftime to 21-14 with a 27-yard pass from Martinez to Robinson, it shot itself in the foot on a subsequent drive with a holding penalty.
When NU wasn’t submarining itself with penalties and turnovers, its offense hummed with Martinez in the shotgun, delivering to all corners of the field, his receivers — including Robinson in a breakout performance — withstanding repeated violent hits from Illinois safeties. Nebraska blasted past 500 total yards before the fourth quarter and finished with 690. It was the second game in school history in which NU ran and passed for more than 300 yards.
With Maurice Washington leaving at halftime with a potential injury — he spent the second half tweeting from the locker room — Robinson took over at running back. He finished with 27 overall touches and the three scores — a 27-yard catch-and-run that included a highlight-worthy juke, a 3-yard reception and a 1-yard bull run for the game winner.
“I came into the week ready,” Robinson said. “I came in ready to play wide receiver or running back. Whatever they (the coaches) needed.”
“He answered the call,” Martinez said. “He knew his assignment. He not only did his job, he did it at a high level and took care of the football.”
Now, Nebraska turns its full attention to Big Ten juggernaut Ohio State, which spotted Miami (Ohio) a 5-0 lead before blitzing the Red Hawks 76-5. NU will have its biggest recruiting weekend of the year, a Friday night party and concert hosted by the Husker basketball team and rapper Rick Ross, its first hosting appearance of ESPN "Gameday" since 2007, and a primetime spot on ABC for the biggest home game since at least 2015.
NU has beaten the bantamweights early in 2019. Here comes the heavyweight champ.
“We’ve got a great team coming in next week, Frost said. “Watching them a little on tape, I think they’re as good a team I’ve seen since I’ve been in the Big Ten.”
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