Illinois, Nebraska look to build behind young QBs

What do Isaiah Williams and Luke McCaffrey do for encores?

As first-time starting quarterbacks, they led Illinois and Nebraska to their first wins of a truncated football season last week. They'll try to make it two in a row in a Big Ten West Division matchup Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.

Both redshirt freshmen were more dangerous with their legs than their arms in getting the zero out of their respective team's win column. Williams set a Fighting Illini single-game record for a quarterback with 192 yards on 31 rushes in a 23-20 win at Rutgers, while McCaffrey led the Cornhuskers with 67 ground yards in their 30-23 home victory over winless Penn State.

Williams hit only 7 of 18 passes for 104 yards, but did save two big completions for the game-winning drive. He found Casey Washington for a pair of 16-yard gains, teeing up James McCourt for a 47-yard field goal with three seconds left that gave Illinois (1-3) its first lead of the year.

Making Williams' performance even more notable was that he's the Fighting Illini's fourth starter in four games. Incumbent Brandon Peters started a season-opening 45-7 loss at Wisconsin before COVID-19 sidelined him.

Matt Robinson got the call in a 31-24 loss to Purdue but didn't make it out of the first quarter before injury put him on the shelf. Coran Taylor played well in Robinson's stead against the Boilermakers, but was miserable in a 41-14 loss to Minnesota as he hit just 6 of 17 passes for 106 yards while taking four sacks.

"No one has cycled through quarterbacks more than we have," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "Isaiah gave us a spark on offense."

As did McCaffrey for Nebraska.

He accomplished a bit more in the air than Williams, completing 13 of 21 attempts for 152 yards and a 45-yard touchdown pass to Zavier Betts that helped the Cornhuskers (1-2) to build a 27-6 halftime lead.

McCaffrey replaced veteran Adrian Martinez, who started 23 games over the past two-plus seasons with diminishing returns. Martinez's efficiency and completion percentage has declined from his freshman year, culminating in a 12 of 27, 125-yard effort in a Nov. 7 loss at Northwestern.

"That decision was one of the hardest I've ever made," Nebraska coach Scott Frost said of benching Martinez, a two-time team captain. "I thought considering it was (McCaffrey's) first start, he did a lot of good things. There's a lot there to build on."

Ironically, Martinez has played some of his best football when facing Illinois. He accounted for 446 total yards in last year's matchup, throwing for 328 yards and rushing for 118 as the Cornhuskers survived a 42-38 shootout in Champaign. In overcoming a 35-21 third quarter deficit, Nebraska finished with a whopping 674 yards of offense.

The Cornhuskers have dominated the all-time series with a 13-3-1 advantage, including six of seven since joining the Big 10 before the 2013 season. The teams are scheduled to start the 2021 season in Dublin, Ireland, with the Illini serving as the "home" team.

--Field Level Media