Backup quarterback Artur Sitkowski threw for 124 yards and a pair of third quarter touchdowns Saturday as Illinois gave new coach Bret Bielema a win in his first game at the school, stopping Big Ten Conference foe Nebraska 30-22 in Champaign, Ill.
Sitkowski hit on 12 of 15 passes in relief of starter Brandon Peters, who left the game late in the first quarter with an apparent shoulder injury after being sacked. Mike Epstein rushed for 75 yards and a score for the Fighting Illini, who were outgained 367-326 but committed just one turnover and only three penalties.
For Nebraska, quarterback Adrian Martinez completed 16 of 32 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown and rushed for another 111 yards. He found Oliver Martin for a 4-yard touchdown pass score with 2:41 left to pull the Cornhuskers within a score.
Nebraska got the ball back with a minute left at its 9-yard line, but managed just one first down before giving the ball up on a fourth-and-10 incompletion from its 27.
Martinez’s with 343 all-purpose yards weren’t enough to prevent a result that will increase the pressure on embattled coach Scott Frost.
Illinois initiated the scoring with 4:07 left in the first quarter, thanks to a blunder by Nebraska punt returner Cam Taylor-Britt. After fielding Blake Hayes’ punt at the 1, Taylor-Britt backed into the end zone and downed the ball a split second before throwing it out of bounds, giving Illinois a safety.
The Cornhuskers took the lead in the second quarter on a 2-yard touchdown run by Markese Stepp (followed by a missed extra-point) and Connor Culp’s 27-yard field goal, but the Illini rallied. Mike Epstein plunged in from the 1 with 2:51 remaining in the half for a 9-9 tie.
Then came another major mistake from Nebraska. Martinez was strip-sacked by Keith Randolph and Calvin Hart scooped up the fumble and raced 41 yards for a tie-breaking touchdown 37 seconds before halftime.
Illinois ran up a 30-9 lead late in the third quarter as Sitkowski found Luke Ford and Isaiah Williams for 2 and 1-yard touchdowns. Martinez drew the Cornhuskers within two scores on a 75-yard keeper with 3:48 remaining.
–Field Level Media