College football roundup: Illinois fends off Nebraska to open season

Illinois tight end Luke Ford celebrates his third-quarter touchdown catch against Nebraska on Aug. 28, 2021.
Illinois tight end Luke Ford celebrates a two-yard touchdown catch as Nebraska linebacker Chris Kolarevic (31) and safety Deontai Williams look on in the third quarter. The Illini won 30-22.
(Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

Under a new coach, with fans packed into the stands for the first time since 2019 and its backup quarterback at the helm, Illinois beat Nebraska 30-22 on Saturday in Champaign, Ill., to kick off the 2021 college football season.

The Big Ten Conference win didn’t come without a price for the Illini.

Illinois starting quarterback Brandon Peters left the game holding his left shoulder after being sacked hard near the end of the first quarter. He was three-for-four passing for 35 yards. He did not return and was replaced by Artur Sitkowski, a sophomore transfer from Rutgers.

Peters’ status wasn’t clear after Saturday’s game.

“No injury updates yet,” first-year Illinois coach Bret Bielema said. “But as you could see, it was Brandon’s non-throwing arm, so there’s that.”


Sitkowski engineered several long scoring drives using a balanced attack. Sitkowski was 12-for-15 passing for 124 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.

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Aug. 28, 2021

“I can’t say enough about Art,” Bielema said of his backup quarterback. “You know, from day one he just projected a serious, very direct kind of personality. He walks like a quarterback, and he talks like a quarterback. When I see our players rallying around a quarterback like that, well, you know you’ve got something.”

The Illini rushing attack was led by Mike Epstein, who ran for 75 yards in 16 carries, including a 45-yard run in the first quarter.

Cornhuskers quarterback Adrian Martinez was impressive, racking up 232 passing yards on 16 completions. He had one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown. Martinez was Nebraska’s leading rusher with 111 yards in 17 carries with one touchdown.

Gabe Ervin Jr. carried the ball 12 times for 19 yards and Markese Stepp had three carries for 10 yards and a touchdown for the Huskers.


Illinois scored on a defensive gem late in the first half when Keith Randolph Jr. sacked Martinez and knocked the ball loose near midfield. Calvin Hart Jr. scooped it up and scampered 41 yards for an Illini touchdown with less than a minute in the half.

Hart was injured late in the game and helped off the field with what appeared to be a left leg injury.

Nebraska coach Scott Frost was being crucified on social media by furious Huskers fans before the end of the first quarter. Beginning his fourth year and under NCAA investigation for allegedly holding rogue practice in violation of COVID-19 protocols, Frost dropped to 12-21 during his tenure at Nebraska.

“It’s like the same old movie’” Frost said after the game. “But we’ll get much better. In my heart, I believe we can have a special season.”

It’s likely his job will depend on it.

Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez, left, congratulates Illinois coach Bret Bielema after a game Aug. 28, 2021.
Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez, left, congratulates new Illinois coach Bret Bielema after the game in Champaign, Ill.
(Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

Fresno State 45, Connecticut 0

Jake Haener threw for three touchdowns and 331 yards, and Fresno State started its 100th year of football with a rout of visiting Connecticut.


Haener left the game on the Bulldogs’ first drive of the second half because of apparent leg cramps as temperatures on the field reached 120 degrees. Haener, a transfer from Washington, threw all of his touchdown passes in the second quarter and by halftime had 299 passing yards.

Haener threw a short crossing route to Jalen Cropper, who weaved and outraced the defense for an 86-yard score to make it 28-0 just before halftime.

Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener throws a pass past Connecticut defenders Aug. 28, 2021.
Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener threw three first-half touchdown passes against Connecticut.
(Gary Kazanjian / Associated Press)

Fresno State struck first with 2:52 left in the first quarter when defensive end Arron Mosby sacked quarterback Zac Zergiotis, forced a fumble and ran it back 31 yards for a 7-0 lead.

Zergiotis threw for 61 yards.

The Huskies made their first trip to Fresno for their first game since Nov. 30, 2019. Connecticut’s last win occurred Oct. 26, 2019, when it beat Massachusetts 56-35.

Texas El Paso 30, New Mexico State 3

Jacob Cowing had a career-high 158 yards receiving, including a 59-yard score, and the visiting Miners opened the season with a victory over the Aggies.


San Jose State 45, Southern Utah 14

Nick Starkel threw for four touchdowns and 394 yards for the defending Mountain West Conference champion Spartans in San Jose.