Entering The 2021 Project, I Recognized That Illinois Had Strong Running Back Play

There was ability in the backfield, yet I really did not recognize we could be this deep.

Illinois had 5 running backs carry the rock on Saturday with the majority of carries mosting likely to Mike Epstein. He would certainly finish the video game with 16 carries for 75 lawns as well as 1 goal. Yet this wasn’t just a one-man program.

Epstein had a good day on the ground, however I also love what Reggie Love did as well. Love had 12 lugs for 45 backyards, but the relocations he flashed are what impressed me one of the most. His lowering is outstanding, as well as it will obtain him large gains throughout the season.

I in fact expected more carries out of Chase Brown, but the truth he only had 5 carries for 24 lawns shows you how excellent the Illinois backfield is this season. Transfer Chase Hayden likewise had a possibility to carry on, choosing 4 lugs for 12 backyards.

The greatest shock came from Jakari Norwood. Nobody was truly sure how the deepness graph would shake out to start the season, yet having Norwood be an impact player is massive for the Illini. On the ground, Norwood had 3 brings for 16 backyards. He also had 1 reception for 7 backyards on the day.

On the whole, I like what I saw out of the running back area on Saturday. A solid rotation of fresh legs will certainly allow the Illini to creep up on some groups this period. This is a terrific strategy.

Scott Frost, Adrian Martinez, Ben Stille, Webcam Jurgens, as well as virtually every other Nebraska group leader that talked after the loss all said the exact same thing.

Saturday felt like they were watching the exact same awful flick with the awful finishing stuck on repeat for the past 3 years.

All of the progress the Huskers insisted they ‘d made over the offseason was nonexistent in Champaign.

They still gave the football away, committed critical penalties, had erratic quarterback play, couldn’t establish a traditional running game, and were putrid on special teams.

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Frost was adamant after the game that his 2021 squad was still the best team he ‘d had yet in Lincoln. But when it came down to playing winning, disciplined football, NU looked no different than it did in its previous 20 losses.

Nebraska’s psyche is already in jeopardy
You could almost feel Frost and his players trying to convince themselves that this season could still be different during their post-game answers.

In a game that meant so much to the program, that “here we go again” feeling was impossible to ignore.

Martinez insisted that he and his teammates believed they would win up until the final whistle. But as one bad break after another started snowballing on them, NU looked like it was panicking.

The good news is that the Huskers have a locker room full of veteran leaders, and all of them made it clear that they weren’t going to let the season slip away after just one game.

While that’s the right mentality, something needs to change in a hurry to make good on that promise.

NU can’t hitch its wagon solely to Martinez
One of the many repeat patterns that carried over into Saturday was that Nebraska became solely reliant on Martinez to do everything on offense.

Down just two touchdowns midway through the third quarter, the Huskers seemed to go entirely away from their game plan and dropped Martinez back for play after play, hoping he ‘d make something happen.

As high as NU has always been on Martinez, he’s not the caliber of player who can single-handedly carry his team to win consistently.

The offensive line has to block better. The running backs need to produce better on early downs.

or the renewed emphasis that Nebraska said it put into special teams this offseason, it’s hard to think that area of the game could have been any worse.

The punting was awful, as Daniel Cerni averaged just 34.4 yards on five punts, including two kicks of 26 and 19 yards.

The return game was a mess, punctuated by Cam Taylor-Britt’s maddening decision to field a punt at NU’s 1-yard line, fall in the end zone, and then throw the ball forward to spot Illinois with a safety.

But until that happens, Nebraska t-shirt Martinez will have to be significantly better than he was at Illinois if NU is going to have any chance at a winning record.

Reigning Big Ten Kicker of the Year, Connor Culp, shanked two extra points after making all 20 of his tries last season. His only made kick was a 27-yard chip shot field goal in the second quarter.

Maybe the only “highlight” on special teams was freshman walk-on Brenden Franke, who got the nod as the kickoff specialist. Franke booted four of his six kickoffs for touchbacks and had another fair caught.

Nebraska had just 12 kickoffs for touchbacks all of last season.

On paper, Nebraska seemed to have a decent day running the football against Illinois, totaling 160 yards on 39 carries and two touchdowns.

But when considering that well over half of those yards came from Martinez running for his life on broken passing plays, it provides some sobering context.

There was a thought that the Huskers would try a different approach offensively this season and make a more substantial commitment to establishing a traditional running game.

Instead, NU’s backs carried the ball a total of 19 times for 54 yards with a long run of just 11 yards.

There was a stretch from the 9:15 mark in the second quarter to 35 seconds left in the third where Nebraska’s running backs didn’t carry the ball once.

Even though there was relative game inexperience, many thought that the overall talent and depth on the offensive line was the best Frost had ever had at Nebraska.

That certainly didn’t hold up with the o-line’s performance on Saturday.

The group gave up five sacks, four quarterback hurries, and six tackles for a loss of 35 yards. If you take out Martinez’s 75-yard touchdown scramble, NU only rushed for 85 yards on 38 carries (2.2 ypc).

Nebraska’s early-down rushing was non-existent, and Martinez never looked comfortable with the pocket constantly collapsing around him.

So much was said about how the offense would benefit from better play up front, but the woes we saw at Illinois will only continue unless there is a significant improvement.

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