Heartbreak again for Nebraska. And joy for Illinois.
The Fighting Illini drove 72 yards in 41 seconds, scoring with 10 seconds to play on a 1-yard diving catch in the end zone by Geronimo Allison from Wes Lunt to beat the Cornhuskers 14-13 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
Illinois (4-1) trailed 13-0 before scoring with 13:21 to play on a 22-yard Lunt throw to Marchie Murdock. Nebraska squandered offensive chances, the last when it elected to throw to running back Devine Ozigbo on third down in the final minute with Illinois out of timeouts.
The incompletion preserved time for the Illini, who took possession at their 28-yard line after Armstrong threw incomplete on fourth down. Lunt hit Sam Mays for 15 yards, then found Malik Turner for a 50-yard gain over safety Nate Gerry to the Nebraska 7.
The Huskers drop to 2-3, losing for the third time in the final seconds. They fell last month in coach Mike Riley’s debut to Brigham Young on a Hail Mary and lost in overtime at Miami.
The Illini struggled offensively with dropped passes in windy and wet conditions and lost versatile running back Josh Ferguson to injury in the first quarter.
What the win means for Illinois: A big step in its bid for improvement over last season. This is not vintage Nebraska by any means, but the Illini showed resolve to come back from two scores down in the fourth quarter. Illinois faces a trip to resurgent Iowa next week. The schedule turns even rougher in November. Illinois must find a spark offensively, but its defense is solid enough to keep it in most Big Ten games. The outcome Saturday kept the Illini, under interim coach Bill Cubit, relevant for at least another week in the West.
What the loss means for Nebraska: Nothing comes easily for the Huskers, who had chances in the third and fourth quarters to put this game out of reach. It can take no solace in knowing Minnesota and Wisconsin, the other preseason co-favorites in the Big Ten West, also lost on the opening week of conference play Saturday. Yes, the league’s weaker division has been turned upside down, with Northwestern and Iowa as the new leaders. For Nebraska, though, with the Badgers and Gophers up next, it’s time to fix its late-game problems and a leaky secondary or run the risk of failing to get to six wins to reach bowl eligibility -- something that's unforgivable in Nebraska.
The game turned when: The moment the Illini got the wind at its back in the fourth quarter. Illinois ran clock at the end of the third, in fact, hoping to capitalize right away on the breezy conditions. Lunt hit Allison for an 11-yard gain on the first play of the fourth to convert a third-and-8, and the Illini scored four plays later. The teams traded punts on the next six possessions before the Huskers looked set to run out the clock, eating 35 yards and nearly three minutes behind the running of fullback Andy Janovich. The wind came back into play on the game-winning drive for Illinois.
Uh, what? File this under bizarre mistakes that require a direct forward to the Big Ten office. Illinois gave up possession on downs to open the second half after it unwittingly failed to convert on fourth-and-3 when the on-field marker showed the play as third down. Officials lost track of the down, requiring replay review to confirm that the Illini gained 3 yards on first down from its 35, 6 yards on the second down and lost 2 on third down. Cubit argued to no avail that he would have punted if he’d known it was fourth down. Instead, Lunt threw a 2-yard completion to Allison. Some of the responsibility, of course, falls on the Illinois coaches staff to know the situation. The problem appeared connected to the first play of the half, a 10-yard Lunt completion to Allison, after which the on-field marker was not correctly changed.