Nebraska opens its 132nd season on Saturday when the Huskers travel to Illinois for the earliest conference game in Big Ten history. The Huskers and Fighting Illini are meeting in Week 0 because the game was originally set to be played in Ireland, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the game to be moved to Illinois. Head Coach Scott Frost begins his fourth season at his alma mater in 2021, while Saturday’s season opener marks the Illinois head coaching debut for Bret Bielema. The Huskers saw their four-game win streak in the series snapped last season, as Illinois earned the victory in Lincoln. Nebraska has won the past two meetings in Champaign, and the Huskers bring a two-game road winning streak into Saturday’s game after the Huskers won at Purdue and Rutgers last December. Nebraska went 2-3 away from home last season with all three losses to teams that finished the year ranked in the top 20, including one-possession losses at No. 10 Northwestern and No. 16 Iowa. The Huskers return a veteran defense that brings back 15 players who earned at least one start last season. Eight players who started at least seven of Nebraska’s eight games last season return this fall, including Marquel Dismuke, JoJo Domann and Garrett Nelson, who each started every game in 2020. Offensively, Adrian Martinez is back for his fourth year as Nebraska’s starting quarterback. Martinez, who owns four Nebraska career records and five season marks, is one of only four active FBS players with 5,000 career passing yards and 1,500 career rushing yards. He was second among all FBS quarterbacks in rushing during the 2020 season (74.4 ypg), while ranking fourth in completion percentage (71.5)
SERIES HISTORY: NEBRASKA VS. ILLINOIS
Nebraska leads the all-time series with Illinois, 13-4-1. The Huskers are 6-2 against the Illini since joining the Big Ten Conference in 2011.
- Nebraska had won the past four meetings with Illinois before the Illini won in Lincoln last season.
The four-game win streak was the longest for Nebraska against any Big Ten opponent since joining the conference in 2011.
- Nebraska posted a 54-35 victory over Illinois in 2018. The 54 points tied for the most Nebraska scored in a conference game in its first 10 years in the Big Ten.
- Nebraska and Illinois are also scheduled to open the season against each other in Champaign in 2025.
- Before joining the Big Ten, Nebraska and Illinois last met in a home-and-home series in 1985 and 1986, with the Huskers winning both of those matchups.
HUSKER HISTORY IN SEASON OPENERS
Nebraska has an impressive history in season openers. The Huskers have won 98 of their 131 season openers, winning their first game more than 77 percent of the time while posting a 98-28-5 record.
- Nebraska is 32-3 in its first game of the season dating back to 1986.
- The Huskers are opening a season on road for the second straight year, the only two times this century that Nebraska has played its season opener on the road. N U is also scheduled to open away from home in 2022 and 2023. Against Illinois, the Huskers are looking to win their first season opener on the road since a 42-7 non-conference victory at Iowa to open the 1999 campaign.
- Nebraska is 11-2 when it opens the season against a conference opponent. The Huskers are facing a conference foe in the season opener for just the fourth time in the last 73 seasons. NU has opened each of the last two seasons with a conference road game and is scheduled to open against a Big Ten foe three of the next four seasons as well.
- SEASON OPENER RECORD: 98-28-5 (.767) • AT HOME: 85-14-3 (.848)
- ON THE ROAD: 9-14-2 (.400) • AT A NEUTRAL SITE: 4-0-0 (1.000)
- BIGGEST WIN: 117-0 vs. Kearney St. (1911) • BIGGEST LOSS: 54-0 at Minnesota (1943)
- LONGEST WINNING STREAK: 29 (1986-2014) • LONGEST LOSING STREAK: 6 (1942-47)
MARTINEZ RANKS AMONG NATION’S TOP QUARTERBACKS
Quarterback Adrian Martinez has put up statistics through his first three seasons that have him ranked among the Nebraska all-time leaders in several categories. Martinez has thrown for 5,628 yards in his career, rushed for 1,776 yards and totaled 7,404 yards of offense. He owns four Nebraska career records, five season records and one game record.
- Martinez is Nebraska’s all-time leader in total offensive yards per game (264.4), 400-yard total offense games (5) and 300-yard total offense games (13). He has produced five of Nebraska’s 17 individual 400-yard total offense performances.
- Martinez averaged a school-record 295.1 yards of total offense per game as a true freshman in 2018. That average ranked 12th nationally, led all freshmen and was the ninth-highest average by a freshman in NCAA history, including the third-best mark ever by a true freshman.
- Martinez also set Nebraska season records for 300-yard total offense games (7) and 400-yard total offense games (3) in 2018.
- Martinez is one of only four active FBS quarterbacks who enter the 2021 season with 5,000 career passing yards and 1,500 career rushing yards.
- Martinez set a then-Nebraska record with an 86.2 completion percentage against Minnesota in 2018, connecting on 25-of-29 passes for 276 yards and three touchdowns. He bettered that mark at Iowa in 2020, connecting on 18-of-20 passes for a school-record 90.0 percent completion rate.
- Martinez completed a school-record 71.5 percent of his passes in 2020. His completion percentage led the Big Ten and ranked fourth nationally. His 71.5 completion percentage also ranked fifth overall in Big Ten history and was the fourth-highest mark in a Big Ten Conference season.
- Martinez not only led Nebraska in passing in 2020, but he was the Huskers’ leading rusher as well, becoming the third player to lead Nebraska in rushing and passing in the same season.
- In 2020, Martinez ranked second nationally in rushing yards per game among quarterbacks (74.4 yards per game). He was the only Power Five quarterback to average 70 rushing yards per game.
- In his career, Martinez has rushed for 1,776 yards. That total ranks third among all active FBS quarterbacks entering the 2021 season.
- At Illinois in 2019, Martinez produced one of only two 300-yard passing and 100-yard rushing performances in Nebraska history (328 passing, 118 rushing).
- In 2018, Martinez became just the sixth freshman in NCAA history to average 200 passing yards and 50 rushing yards per game and just the second true freshman to hit those marks. Martinez was also one of only four FBS quarterbacks – regardless of class – who averaged 225 passing yards and 50 rushing yards per game in 2018.
VETERAN DEFENSE LOOKS TO LEAD HUSKERS THIS SEASON
Nebraska returns 11 full- or part-time starters on a veteran defense that aims to be the strength of this year’s team. The Huskers bring back eight players who started at least seven games in 2020.
- Nebraska allowed an average of 169.5 rushing yards per game and 386.5 yards of total offense per game in 2020. Those totals marked the fewest rushing and total yards allowed per game by a Husker defense since the 2016 season.
- According to ESPN, Nebraska enters the 2021 season with the most returning defensive production of any team in the Big Ten West. The ESPN formula takes into account a team’s total number of returning tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and passes defended.
- A total of seven Husker defenders earned at least honorable-mention All-Big Ten accolades last season. That was the highest number of all-conference defenders since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011, and six of those seven All-Big Ten selections return this fall.
- Cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt was a 2020 second-team All-Big Ten honoree. Teams generally avoided throwing to Taylor-Britt’s side of the field, but when they did he broke up four passes and had a pair of interceptions in eight games. Taylor-Britt has ranked in the top 70 nationally in interceptions each of the last two years, and he ranked third nationally in forced fumbles in 2019.
- Safety Marquel Dismuke, outside linebacker JoJo Domann, inside linebacker Will Honas, defensive lineman Ben Stille and safety Deontai Williams all return as “super seniors” in their sixth year playing college football, although Honas is out indefinitely with an injury. Each player was a senior last year but chose to take advantage of the free year of eligibility in 2020 and return for the 2021 season. Each of the five “super seniors” earned honorable-mention All-Big Ten accolades last season.
- Dismuke has started 20 consecutive games at safety. He ranked fourth on the team with 47 tackles and set career highs with 4.0 TFLs and four pass breakups in last year’s shortened season. Dismuke has totaled 158 tackles in his career.
- Domann led the Huskers with a career-high 58 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, five pass breakups, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in eight games last season. Domann enters the 2021 season ranked third among all active FBS players with seven career forced fumbles.
- Stille returns to anchor the defensive line. His 22 career starts are the most of any current Blackshirt. Stille is Nebraska’s active career leader with 26.0 tackles for loss and 13.0 sacks.
- Williams set career highs with 51 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss and 1.0 sack in eight games last year. He also broke up four passes and had a sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery for a touchdown on the same play against Penn State, believed to be the first Husker ever to accomplish that feat.
- In addition to the six returning All-Big Ten players, NU returns five other starters. Garrett Nelson started every game at outside linebacker in 2020 and totaled 30 tackles, 4.0 TFLs and 1.5 sacks.
- Ty Robinson started seven games at defensive end as a redshirt freshman in 2020, totaling 17 tackles with a pair of tackles for loss.
- Luke Reimer made the most of his five starts at inside linebacker last season, recording 40 tackles and ranking second on the team with 2.0 sacks and third with 5.0 TFLs despite battling injuries.
- Caleb Tannor started five games at outside linebacker last season. Despite the shortened season, he finished with a career-high 23 tackles.
- Damion Daniels started three games at nose guard in 2020 and set career highs in tackles (20) and tackles for loss (4.0).
- The Huskers also bring back safety Myles Farmer, inside linebacker Nick Henrich, cornerback Quinton Newsome and defensive end Casey Rogers, each of whom made their first career starts last season.
- The defense also figures to receive a boost from transfer Chris Kolarevic, who totaled 144 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, two interceptions and five pass breakups as a starting linebacker at Northern Iowa in 2018 and 2019.
SCOUTING THE ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
Illinois will have a new look when it opens its 2021 season on Saturday, as Bret Bielema makes his Illini head coaching debut. The Fighting Illini went 2-6 in the abbreviated 2020 season under head coach Lovie Smith. Illinois returns 81 percent of its total starts on offense from last season and 86 percent of its total starts on defense, and the Illini bring back their starting punter and placekicker. Illinois returned more scholarship seniors (17) from last year’s roster than any other Power Five team and the Illini boast 29 graduates. The roster features 11 players who have earned All-Big Ten recognition in their careers, including 2019 Big Ten Punter of the Year Blake Hayes. The Illini ranked third in the Big Ten in rushing last season, averaging 196.1 yards per game. Illinois returns all but five carries and 25 rushing yards from last year, and the ground game is powered by a returning offensive line that has combined for 131 career starts, the sixth-highest total in the country. Defensively, Illinois returns eight of its top 10 tacklers from 2020, including linebacker Jake Hansen, who is the nation’s active leader with 10 career forced fumbles.
The First Kickoff of the College Football Season
- Saturday’s 12:20 p.m. CT kickoff will be the first of the college football season and the only Power5 vs. Power-5 game of Week 0.
- Illinois returns to full capacity for the first time since the 2019 season.
- The last time the Illini had a season opener at Memorial Stadium against a conference opponent was Sept. 2, 1995 when #25 Illinois hosted #13 Michigan.
The 2021 Fighting Illini
- Illinois returns 82% of its total starts on offense (72/88). Only OL Kendrick Green (8 starts), WR Josh Imatorbhebhe (7), and TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe (1) have departed among offensive players that started a game in 2020.
- Illinois returns 86% of its total starts on defense (76/88). Only LB Milo Eifler (5), DB Nate Hobbs (5), and DB/LB Delano Ware (2) have departed among defensive players that started a game in 2020.
- Illinois returns its entire specialists unit, led by P Blake Hayes, K James McCourt, and LS Ethan Tabel.
- Illinois returns 131 career FBS starts on its offensive line, tied for the ninth-most in the nation: Vederian Lowe (40), Alex Palczewski (40), Doug Kramer (37), Verdis Brown (8), Julian Pearl (4), Alex Pihlstrom (2)
- One of Bielema’s first tasks as head coach was to get the know the Fighting Illini roster and invite student-athletes back to Champaign. All 2020 football student-athletes were granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
» Illinois returned 21 of the 26 student-athletes listed as seniors on the 2020 roster.
» Illinois returned 18 scholarship seniors from last year’s roster, the most of any Power-5 team
in the nation.
- Illinois returned 83% of its production according to Bill Connelly, ESPN’s SP+ writer. The 83% is ranked sixth in the Big Ten and 42nd in the nation.
- Illinois has 42 seniors, including 22 super seniors who received an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19.
- Illinois’ 22 super seniors are the most in Power-5.
- Illinois’ 20 other seniors still have one year of eligibility remaining following this season – if they choose to use it – and are listed as juniors on the roster.
- The Fighting Illini roster features 29 student-athletes that already earned bachelor’s degrees, the most of any team in the nation.
- Illinois returns 10 four-time letterwinners, tied for the second-most in the nation (Toledo, USC) behind only Ball State (11).
- Notable transfers added to the roster for 2021…
» WR Jafar Armstrong – Ran for 513 yards and caught 30 passes for 294 yards in three years at Notre Dame
» OL Jack Badovinac – Three-time All-Patriot League first team selection at Colgate
» LB Calvin Hart Jr. – NC State transfer had 53 tackles in 24 games
» RB Chase Hayden – Grad transfer from East Carolina, started his career at Arkansas for head coach Bret Bielema
» DB Prather Hudson – Do-it-all walk-on turned scholarship student-athlete comes from Georgia
» TE Max Rosenthal – Former Michigan State fullback started two games in 2019 before missing the 2020 season
» QB Artur Sitkowski – Started 15 games in three seasons at Rutgers, passing for 2,031 yards and eight touchdowns
» DB Eddie Smith – Played in 10 games in three seasons at Alabama, helping the Crimson Tide to the 2020 national title
- The Illini have had huge success in the transfer market in the past, including the following student-athletes on the current roster…
» RB Chase Brown – Brother of DB Sydney Brown transferred from Western Michigan and was an All-Big Ten third team selection in 2020
» TE Luke Ford – Former No. 1 TE recruit in the nation first committed to Bielema at Arkansas before going to Georgia, then transferring to Illinois
» WR Brian Hightower – Former four-star recruit is in his second season after coming from Miami (Fla.)
» OL Blake Jeresaty – FCS All-American sat out last season with an injury after transferring from Wofford
» WR Donny Navarro – Valpo transfer had a big second-half of the season in 2019 and was awarded a scholarship
» DL Roderick Perry II – One of the top Big Ten d-line NFL Draft prospects, grad transferred from South Carolina State in 2020
» QB Brandon Peters – Third-year student-athlete for the Illini after grad transferring from Michigan
» DB Derrick Smith – Started four games in 2020 after sitting out 2019 after transferring from Miami (Fla.)
» WR Khamri Thompson – Former two-sport athlete at Missouri (track) came to Illinois in 2019
» WR Marquez Beason – switched from DB during spring practices
» TE Cooper Davis – switched from DL following spring practices
» WR/K Caleb Griffin – switched from just a K prior to spring practices
» TE Michael Marchese – switched from LB during spring practices
» OLB Ben Schultz – switched from DB following spring practices
» DB Coran Taylor – switched from QB following spring practices
» TE Preston Engel – switched from OL during spring practices
» WR Isaiah Williams – switched from QB for the final two spring practices
» OLB Bryce Barnes – switched from DL during the summer
» OLB Shammond Cooper – switched from LB at the start of fall camp
» DL Verdis Brown – switched from OL at the start of fall camp
» Note: Most defensive ends switched to outside linebacker upon Bielema’s arrival
SERIES vs. NEBRASKA
Series: Nebraska leads, 13-4-1
Last: Illinois 41, Illinois 23
(at Nebraska, 11/21/2020)
Streak: Illinois W1
at Champaign: Nebraska leads, 4-2-1
The Illinois-Nebraska Series
- Illinois trails the all-time series against Nebraska, 4-13-1.
- Illinois defeated Nebraska 41-23 last season to snap a four-game losing streak to the Cornhuskers. The victory was the first at Nebraska since 1924.
- The 41 points scored last season were a season high and the most the Illini have ever scored on the road in Lincoln. It was also the most points Illinois has scored in a road game since Nov. 7, 2015 at Purdue (48 points).
- Illinois is attempting to beat Nebraska in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1923 (W, 24-7 in Champaign) and 1924 (W, 9-6 in Lincoln).
- Illinois is playing Nebraska in a season opener for the fifth time in program history (1923, 1924, 1925, 1953). The Illini hold a record of 2-1-1 against Nebraska in season openers.
- Illinois’ 14-13 win in Champaign 10/3/2015 was the Illini’s first against the Cornhuskers since 1924.
• The 2015 Illini win over the Huskers ended in dramatic fashion, as QB Wes Lunt found WR Geronimo Allison for a 1-yard touchdown with 10 seconds remaining to give the Illini a 14-13 victory in Champaign. Illinois went 72 yards in the final 41 seconds for the winning score.