Illinois scores the first points of the 2021 college football season off a safety on a botched punt return

·2 min read

Don't field a punt close to your own end zone.

That timeless rule is now probably ingrained in the head of Nebraska's Cam Taylor-Britt after he gifted Illinois the first two points of the 2021 college football season on Saturday in the Huskers' loss to Illinois.

Taylor-Britt inexplicably fielded a Blake Hayes punt while going backwards inside the Nebraska 5 in the first quarter. Taylor-Britt caught the punt, and then his momentum carried him toward the goal line. When he realized what happened — and that a tackler was heading right for him — he panicked. But not before his knee was down on the goal line and the ball was in the end zone. 

As you can see, Taylor-Britt heaved the ball out of the end zone. That is, as you know, not legal. He was originally called for an illegal forward pass from the end zone and a safety was given to Illinois. The play was reviewed after it was clear Taylor-Britt was down in the end zone, though the overturn didn't change the outcome. Illinois still got the two points. 

We're guessing Taylor-Britt was inclined to field the punt so close to the goal line because Hayes' first punt of the game went out of bounds less than a yard from the end zone. But taking the chance that a punt near the end zone becomes a touchback is nearly always preferable to fielding it and risking a fumble or safety.

Illinois didn't do anything with its bonus possession after the safety and might have lost starting QB Brandon Peters to a shoulder injury. Peters was sacked on the ensuing possession and landed hard on his left shoulder. He was replaced by former Rutgers QB Artur Sitkowski and Sitkowski was promptly sacked on third down ahead of a long field goal attempt that missed. 

Things got better for Illinois, however. The Illini jumped out to a 30-9 lead in the second half before winning 30-22.

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