CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In a wild, weird Big Ten opener, Nebraska came back from 14 down to beat Illinois 42-38.
The Huskers outgained Illinois 690 to 299, earned more than twice as many first downs and averaged 7.0 yards per play. But the Illini turned four Nebraska fumbles into 21 points and led most of the game by at least two scores.
But 28 points in the second half lifted NU over the Illini, breaking a school record eight-game losing streak on the road, and pulling the Huskers to 3-1 on the year.
Adrian Martinez struggled early, but finished with 327 yards passing and 118 yards on the ground. Freshman Wan’Dale Robinson was a workhorse, carrying the ball 18 times in place of an injured Maurice Washington for 89 yards and a rushing touchdown. He also caught eight passes for 79 yards and two more scores. Washington had 89 rushing yards on 10 carries, but was taken to the locker room in the second quarter and didn’t return. JD Spielman caught seven passes for 159 yards.
And though those stats stand out, 11 penalties for 119 yards and four fumbles kept the double-digit underdogs in the game.
Illini running back Reggie Corbin ran for 134 yards on 20 carries. Quarterback Brandon Peters completed 9 of 21 passes for 78 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.
Corbin got the party started early with a 66-yard touchdown run on the second play of the game. A sloppy exchange between Martinez and Washington turned into a fumble and gave Illinois the ball back at their own 33-yard line. Brandon Peters hit Josh Imatorbhebhe on a go-route from 26 yards, and Illinois took a 14-0 lead with 8:12 left.
Nebraska responded with a Martinez pass to tight end Jack Stoll from 6 yards out to cut the lead to seven.
A perfect Illini punt placed the ball at Nebraska’s 1-yard-line at the beginning of the second quarter. Mills took the handoff, then fumbled, which was recovered by Illinois at the 2-yard-line. RaVon Bonner punched it in on the next play for a 21-7 lead.
Nebraska’s offense countered with a three-and-out.
But Cam Taylor-Britt then bailed NU out on with a pick.
The offense finally woke up after that. Martinez started it off with a 26-yard pass to Spielman. Washington took a direct snap 25 yards. Then Martinez threw a simple pass to Robinson on third-and-6. The true freshman shook a defensive back and scored from 27 yards for a 21-14 lead with 8:20 left.
Nebraska had a chance to tie the game late in the first, but a holding penalty on Brenden Jaimes negated a 20-yard run from Mills, and a dropped pass in Illini territory forced a punt. So the score remained at the break.
Illinois shut down NU on the opening drive of the half, then moved easily through Nebraska’s defense — running for 12.2 yards per carry — to take a 28-14 lead in the opening minutes of the second half.
A 3-yard shuffle pass from Martinez to Robinson that ended in the end zone closed the gap again to seven after a seven-play, 75-yard drive.
The Nebraska defense forced a punt, and punter Blake Hayes put NU inside their own 20 for the fourth time. On second down, Martinez hit Spielman for 20 yards, but the ball was ripped away and recovered by the Illini — Nebraska’s third fumble of the day on their own side of the field. Illinois didn’t take advantage of the extra possession and gave the ball right back on a three-and-out.
Nebraska then fumbled immediately — for the fourth time. The ball was swatted out of Martinez’s hand and recovered after the play was blown dead, and the fumble was upheld after a review. This time, Illinois scored on a 10-yard touchdown from Peters to push the lead back to 14 at 35-21.
The Illini offense ran for 221 yards Saturday and 5.8 yards per carry. The Husker defense allowed their previous three opponents to about 2 yards per rush.
Nebraska then rattled off 14 straight points after a nine-play drive in 3:29 capped off by Mills from 14 yards to pull to 35-27. The extra point by Lane McCallum was blocked. Mills pounded in his second score of the day from two yards after an Illini three-and-out. Martinez dove at the pylon for the two-point conversation to tie the game at 35 with 14:29 left.
Illinois kicker James McCourt hit a 47-yard field goal to take a slight lead about two minutes later.
Martinez led Nebraska right back to the red zone, with a 13-yard pass to Robinson to start the drive, then two different scrambles of 10 and 25 to get the Huskers to the 1-yard line.
Robinson finished the drive from a yard out for the 42-38 lead, his third score of the night.
Nebraska’s defense held on a third down, and Martinez took off on the next drive for 44 yards to keep NU in business.
McCallum made a 22-yard field goal, but Nebraska was called for a false start. He then hit a 27-yarder off the upright, giving Illinois the ball with two minutes left to win.
Lamar Jackson hit Peters for what appeared to be a fumble, but that was overturned, giving Illini another shot. On fourth-and-10, Peters’ pass was knocked incomplete by Marquel Dismuke.
And after almost four hours, Nebraska survived.
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Nebraska's Adrian Martinez runs in a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter against Illinois at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez signals a first down in the third quarter.
Illinois' Tony Adams tackles Nebraska's JD Spielman in the first half at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska's Dedrick Mills celebrates scoring a fourth quarter touchdown.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez. left, talks with Illinois' Reggie Corbin at the end of the game.
Nebraska's Dedrick Mills scores a fourth quarter touchdown.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez, left, goes for two to tie the game at 35 as Illinois' Jartavius Martin defends in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez breaks a tackle from Illinois' Oluwole Betiku Jr. in the first half at Memorial Stadium.
Illinois's Jartavius Martin scoops up a fumble from Nebraska's Dedrick Mills in the first half at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska's Caleb Tannor, left, breaks up a pass intended for Illinois' Josh Imatorbhebhe in the first quarter.
Nebraska's Lamar Jackson, left, and Marquel Dismuke, right, try to bring down Illinois' Reggie Corbin in the first quarter.
Nebraska's Maurice Washington leaps over Illinois' Jake Hansen on a five-yard run late in the second quarter at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska's Jack Stoll scores a first quarter touchdown.
Nebraska's Cam Taylor-Britt intercepts a pass intended for Illinois' Daniel Barker in the first half at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska's Wan'Dale Robinson, top, is upended by Illinois' Sydney Brown in the first quarter. Robinson held onto the ball for the reception.
Illinois' Kerby Joseph, left, drags Nebraska's Maurice Washington out of bounds in the first quarter.
Nebraska's Wan'Dale Robinson breaks a tackle from Illinois; Nolan Bernat to score a touchdown in the second quarter at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska's Jack Stoll, front, celebrates scoring a first quarter touchdown with teammate Austin Allen.
Nebraska's Cam Taylor-Britt intercepts a pass intended for Illinois' Daniel Barker, right, in the second quarter.
Nebraska's Dedrick Mills. center left, fumbles the football in the second quarter.
Nebraska's JD Spielman runs after making a catch on Nebraska's opening drive as Illinois' Sydney Brown pursues at Memorial Stadium.
Illinois' Nate Hobbs knocks a pass away from JD Spielman on Nebraska's opening drive at Memorial Stadium.
Illinois' Nate Hobbs knocks Nebraska's Dedrick Mills out of bounds in the first quarter at Memorial Stadium.
Illinois' Reggie Corbin scores on a 66-yard run on the opening drive against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska's Kurt Rafdal warms up before the start of the Nebraska-Illinois football game.
Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez throws the ball around after arriving at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
Nebraska's Austin Allen warms up before the start of the Illinois football game.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez warms up before the start of the Illinois football game.
Sarah Sindelar, left, and Ryan Ossell wait under a tree before the start of Nebraska-Illinois game in Champaign, Illinois.
Aaron Hall, left, and his son Landon, 7, wait for the start of the Nebraska-Illinois game outside Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois. Aaron is originally from Fremont, Nebraska, but now lives in St Louis. This will be Landon's first Husker game.
A sign at Memorial Stadium in Champaign shows the distance from the stadium to the other stadiums in the Big 10.
Nebraska fans cheer as the buses carrying the Nebraska football team arrive at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
Nebraska fan Noah Ross walks to Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois, to see the Huskers take on Illinois. Ross is from the Quad Cities.
Nebraska's Lamar Jackson arrives at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois, for the football game against Illinois.
Nebraska fans wait outside of the stadium for the Nebraska football team to arrive at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.
Illinois' Nate Hobbs knocks a pass away from JD Spielman on Nebraska's opening drive at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez runs for 18 yards as Illinois' Tarique Barnes tackles him late in the third quarter at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska's Dedrick Mills stiff-arms Illinois' Sydney Brown while scoring a touchdown with about 2 minutes left in the third quarter at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez breaks for a long run ahead of Illinois' Jartavius Martin in the fourth quarter at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.
Nebraska's Brenden Jaimes blocks Illinois' Ayo Shogbonyo in the first quarter at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.
Nebraska's Wan'Dale Robinson gets hoisted by Matt Farniok after scoring against Illinois.
Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters throws a pass against Nebraska in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska head coach Scott Frost talks to his team during a timeout in the fourth quarter against Illinois.
Nebraska's Lamar Jackson celebrates the win over Illinois.
Nebraska head coach Scott Frost watches Lane McCallum attempt a fourth quarter field goal against Illinois.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez tries to slip a tackle from Delano Ware.
Illinois' Lovie Smith coaches against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.
Illinois' Lovie Smith talks to the officials after they waved off a block-in-the-back call against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.
Nebraska's Lane McCallum misses a fourth quarter field goal against Illinois as Isaac Armstrong holds at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska head coach Scott Frost celebrates the Huskers' victory against Illinois at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska head coach Scott Frost hugs Miles Jones after the Huskers defeated Illinois at Illinois' Memorial Stadium.
The Huskers have won in 30 states, two countries and at least 70 stadiums. They've played at the Polo Grounds in New York and the Rose Bowl in California. Not to mention trips to Tokyo, Hawaii and, err, Council Bluffs?