The scariest thing is that coach Scott Frost and his players don't know why the same things keep happening to them.
"If I had that answer, it wouldn't have happened today," quarterback Adrian Martinez said. "It's just a matter of continuing to get better, understanding what those mistakes are and understanding that they're hurting this football team. We have to get better."
Players and coaches spent the offseason focusing on the errors that have contributed to Nebraska going 12-20 with three fifth-place finishes in the Big Ten West Division since Frost returned to the program he quarterbacked to a national title in 1997. Frost felt he had his best team entering the season, one with the experience and maturity to play cleaner games in a conference that punishes the error prone.
But Huskers blunders contributed to almost every Illinois score on Saturday, starting with Cam Taylor-Britt catching a punt inside of his 2-yard line and being dropped for a safety while attempting to fling the ball out of the end zone. Nebraska appeared to be in control up 9-2 when Taylor-Britt intercepted a pass from Illinois backup quarterback Art Sitkowski. But linebacker Caleb Tannor was flagged for roughing Sitkowski, and also received an unsportsmanlike conduct foul on the play. The Illini drove for a game-tying touchdown.
Disaster struck in the final minute of the first half as Martinez fumbled and Illinois' Calvin Hart Jr. recovered and raced 41 yards to the end zone. Nebraska's lone turnover along with five penalties and two missed extra-point attempts from Connor Culp, the 2020 Big Ten Kicker of the Year, all contributed to the program's first-ever loss in August.
"It looked like the same movie," Frost said. "I just got done telling the guys, 'We can't have this season look like the same movie,' because this game looked like the same movie today. I don't know what we're doing trying to field the punt inside the 1 [yard line] and then trying to throw it out of the end zone, missing a couple extra points certainly didn't help.
"I felt like every time we got something started on offense, we got a holding or offensive pass interference or bad snap. Haven't seen any of those all camp. So it looked like the same movie today. We can't let it be that way."
Special teams mistakes have been a theme of Frost's tenure. While outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson oversees special teams, the Huskers don't have a dedicated special teams coordinator. Frost noted that while Nebraska didn't have a lot of penalties Saturday, flags seemed to arrive at the worst possible times.
None were more damaging than two 15-yarders on Tannor. Frost said he didn't receive an explanation for either foul, and didn't think Tannor hit Sitkowski late.
"The guys really believe they're better, they know they're better, and they are better," Frost said. "They're better than they've ever been. We've got more talent, more depth, I've been saying that. But they need some good things to happen if they're really going to believe, and sometimes I feel like we're snakebit with the timing of when these things happen."
Martinez noted that Saturday's loss is just the start of a long season and Nebraska has plenty of time to rebound. The fourth-year quarterback had a 75-yard touchdown run and passed for 232 yards, but completed only half of his attempts and had several misfires to open targets.
Nebraska outgained Illinois 392-326 but allowed a 75-yard touchdown drive to begin the second half and fell behind 30-9 before rallying.
"If I had all the answers, I would be a rich man in Nebraska," defensive lineman Ben Stille said. "We're working through it. ... Not letting those catastrophic sequences happen, is the answer. We've just got to play smarter."
Stille and his teammates didn't feel preparation was the problem, despite facing an Illinois team under a new coaching staff. Nebraska returns home to face Fordham and Buffalo before visiting No. 2 Oklahoma on Sept. 18.
The loss will increase pressure on Frost, who is signed through the 2026 season and earns $5 million annually.
"This league, man, a lot of games are going to ride on a play here and a play there, and we didn't make enough of them today," Frost said. "So I need to do a better job of making sure we avoid the mistakes and keep putting them in situations where they can rise up and make those plays.
"I believe in my heart this team can still have a special season."