LINCOLN, Neb. – Streaks haven’t been kind to Illinois football for most of the last generation, but they made what they did on Saturday so much sweeter.
That’s how good of a day Lovie Smith’s team had at the expense of their hosts in Lincoln.
Illinois’ 41-23 win over Nebraska at Memorial Stadium is the first victory over the school on their home field since 1924. That contest featured Illini legend Red Grange and the Illini snuck out of Lincoln with a 9-6 win.
“It’s been that long; I’m told we haven’t won in Lincoln since 1924 when Red Grange played,” said Smith. “Whenever something like that happens, it’s a big deal.”
Since then, Illinois has lost five straight at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium, with four of them coming since 2013. It’s Smith’s first win over the Cornhuskers no matter where the game has been played after four-straight losses in his first four years with the program.
The more recent defeats were a little more on his mind than that 1924 win, but the victory was also a streak-snapper for the program when it comes to the conference. For the first time since the Illini’s Rose Bowl season of 2007, the team won back-to-back road games in the Big Ten.
All are good things for Smith, who has seen his team rebound after a bad 0-3 start to the 2020 campaign. They got a turnover on their first defensive series, though a bit controversial with a lateral pass being ruled a fumble, then scored right away.
After allowing Nebraska to tie the game, Illinois was off and rolling the rest of the half behind quarterback Brandon Peters, who returned after missing three games with COVID-19. Chase Brown added a second rushing touchdown later in the first quarter, then Peters hit Josh Imatorbhebhe for a 28-yard scoring strike. Mike Epstein finished another successful drive when he got in the endzone to make it 28-10.
That was the most points Illinois has scored in the first half of a game since November 6, 2010 against Michigan, when they had 31 in an eventual 67-65 triple-overtime loss in Ann Arbor.
Meanwhile, the defense got five turnovers on the day – two fumbles and three interceptions – to keep the Huskers from mounting a comeback. The Illini have eight takeaways in their last two games – both wins – as they get a bit of momentum in a season that had little just two weeks ago.
A big part of that has been the return of 14 players from COVID-19 protocol, which included a number of key contributors like Peters and starting center Doug Kramer.
“We’re were as healthy as we’ve been, and that has a lot to do with it,” said Smith of the improvement of the team. “When you have your group together, you can do somethings, and that’s how it played out today.”
Doing so in ways that haven’t happened in a decade or nearly a century.