Illinois opens the college football season — and the Bret Bielema era — with a 30-22 victory over Nebraska

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Illinois kicked off the college football season in an emphatic way with a 30-22 victory over Nebraska on Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium.

The “Week 0″ game was the only Power Five conference game played Saturday and gave first-year coach Bret Bielema his first victory with the Illini.

Quarterback Artur Sitkowski, playing in his first game for Illinois after transferring from Rutgers earlier this year, was thrust into action after starter Brandon Peters suffered an apparent shoulder injury in the first quarter. Sitkowski thrived once he settled in, completing 12 of 15 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns without an interception and leading the Illini to 28 unanswered points in the second and third quarters.

Converted quarterback Isaiah Williams also helped lead the way with six catches for 41 yards and a touchdown, and linebacker Calvin Hart Jr. returned a fumble 41 yards for a score.

Leading up to game day, Bielema said he felt the excitement around town about the team — and for good reason.

Bielema helped make Wisconsin a perennial Big Ten power during his tenure as head coach there from 2006-12, giving Illini fans hope that better days are on the way. Nebraska has been scuffling in recent years, and the Cornhuskers looked overmatched against Illinois for much of Saturday.

This was the first time fans were welcomed into Memorial Stadium since 2019, and the student section was filled before the game, while tailgaters lined up early to celebrate the return of live football.

“I’m surprised how good it feels,” Neal Verdict, a season ticket holder from Chicago, said before the game. “I was looking forward to it, but just being out with the people and everything, it’s a lot of fun. Love to see everybody out here.

“I’m optimistic, but I’m also a lifelong Illinois fan, so I know, don’t get your hopes up.”

Bielema noted before the game that continuing that excitement level will be the challenge.

“For people to support us, they have to believe in what we’re doing and they have to see hope, right?” he said earlier in the week. “I hope to instill a lot of hope in a lot of people that have been looking for it here in the Illinois program for the immediate future and years to come.”

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