Illinois 30, Nebraska 22: Nothing to get upset about for Illini, Bielema in opener

It was every bit what the Illini needed in Game 1 of the Bret Bielema era. It was a fine place to start, more than just any old building block, as the Illini seek to end a streak of losing seasons at nine.

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Illinois running back Mike Epstein gives Nebraska linebacker Garrett Nelson a hard time Saturday.

AP Photos

CHAMPAIGN — Week Zero? Indeed, it was.

Weak zeros? Maybe not the Illini. Maybe not anymore.

Illinois’ 30-22 upset Saturday of Nebraska in the opening game of the college football season was no masterpiece. It probably didn’t keep a national audience on Fox on the edge of its collective seat for anywhere close to 60 minutes. It certainly was a nightmarish start to the season for embattled coach Scott Frost and the Cornhuskers, who fell to 12-21 under their last national-title-winning quarterback.

But it was every bit what the Illini needed in Game 1 of the Bret Bielema era.

‘‘The lessons learned today were just worth their weight in gold,’’ Bielema said about his first game as a head coach since he was fired on the field after Arkansas’ season finale in 2017. ‘‘You can’t script this any better for a head coach to have a learning experience for our players and our coaches.’’

Brandon Peters might not co-sign that sentiment. The ‘‘super senior’’ starting quarterback — who opted back in for an extra season available because of the pandemic — exited the game for good in the first quarter with an apparent injury to his left shoulder.

But that opened the door for Artur Sitkowski, a former highly touted recruit who fizzled out at Rutgers, got on board with Bielema and had his moments in his Illini debut — none bigger than a perfect 45-yard completion to Deuce Spann that set up the touchdown that put the Illini in front 30-9 in the third quarter.

And no moment turned the game like the second-quarter debacle for the Huskers involving Sitkowski and linebacker Caleb Tannor.

Nebraska had answered an early Illinois safety by reeling off nine points and knocking out Peters — not to mention sacking Sitkowski on his first drop-back — and appeared to intercept Sitkowski on the Illini’s next series. But Tannor was flagged for roughing the quarterback and taunting, 30 yards of precious laundry in all, and Illinois soon scored its first touchdown of the season to tie the score.

‘‘Just bang-bang, you know? Football happens. Just bang-bang-bang,’’ Sitkowski said of the interaction with Tannor. ‘‘I had to get up, regroup myself and focus on the next play. . . .

‘‘I was ready to go, man. I was fired up. I was real fired up. When you get hit like that, you know you’re alive.’’

This is as good a time as any to point out that Sitkowski — well, it kind of rhymes with Grabowski, doesn’t it? Somehow his name, his burly 6-5 frame and where he’s playing all seem to go together.

But there were lots of Illinois players to point to after a Big Ten West victory against the Huskers, who were favored by seven points.

In the last minute of the first half, defensive lineman Keith Randolph Jr. strip-sacked Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez from behind, and linebacker Calvin Hart Jr. scooped up the ball and raced 41 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. In all, five Illinois players sacked Martinez, an elusive fourth-year starter who ran for a 75-yard touchdown and threw for 212 yards and a score.

‘‘The only guy that really could beat us, we thought, was [Martinez],’’ Bielema said.

The Illini won the special-teams battle, thanks to punter Blake Hayes. Receiver Isaiah Williams made an impact in his first game after a position switch from quarterback. The Illini had a nearly 10-minute advantage in time of possession and managed to outrush the only school in the Big Ten that averaged at least 200 yards on the ground in each of the last three seasons.

‘‘This wasn’t a surprise,’’ said Alex Palczewski, one of the key pieces of a deeply experienced offensive line. ‘‘We expected this. We worked our tails off.’’

Even surrendering 13 points after opening a 30-9 lead was good for the long-term cause, too, Bielema figured. It’s all about those teachable moments.

‘‘Nothing is going to come easy for this group,’’ Bielema said. ‘‘They played their hearts out, rallied around a second-string quarterback. Anytime your quarterback gets knocked out, that’s a big deal.’’

It was a fine place to start, more than just any old building block, as the Illini seek to end a streak of losing seasons at nine and — finally? maybe? — turn a corner under Bielema, the seventh coach at the school since the last one with a winning overall record, John Mackovic.

‘‘You can have only one opportunity to win your opener as a head coach,’’ Bielema said.

He was asked whether those were tears on his face after his comeback game.

‘‘Nope,’’ he said. ‘‘I was just sweating.’’

Sweat is good. Whatever it takes.

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