College Football Week 0: Reaction, recaps, and takeaways from small slate of games

College football Week 0 recap, reaction, and takeaways: Nebraska in a nosedive, Haener riding the hot hand, and UCLA tramples Hawaii.

Illinois put the pressure on Scott Frost, Jake Haener sent the UConn Huskies whimpering home, and UCLA trampled all over Hawaii as college football returned to stadiums, TV screens, and back into our hearts this Saturday. We have the crucial recaps, reactions, and takeaways from college football Week 0.

College Football Week 0: Reaction, recaps, and takeaways

There were five games featuring FBS teams in college football Week 0. Nebraska traveled to Champaign to take on Illinois in the season-opening all-Big Ten clash. Then Fresno State entertained UConn, returning to the football field having missed the entire 2020 college football season. UCLA welcomed Hawaii in the 3:30 PM ET slate, and UTEP will travel to New Mexico State and Southern Utah to San Jose State in late-night action.

Bret Bielema back, Scott Frost feeling the pressure

College football is back, and so is Bret Bielema. In front of a packed Memorial Stadium, Illinois held off a late rally from Nebraska to record a 30-22 win in Bielema’s debut game in charge of the Fighting Illini. The victory gave Illinois back-to-back wins over Nebraska for the first time since the 1920s.

While there was ecstasy in Illinois for the home team, the defeat for Nebraska adds further fire to what is rapidly becoming the hottest seat in college football. After multiple seasons of mediocrity and an offseason of controversy, Frost needed to start this season with a win.

Instead, he got mistakes, missed kicks, and murky inconsistency from quarterback Adrian Martinez. The senior signal-caller threw for 232 yards while providing the biggest ground threat for the Cornhuskers. His 75-yard rushing touchdown was one of the most spectacular plays of the day. However, he only completed 50% of his passes and coughed up a 16th career fumble that was recovered for a touchdown by Calvin Hart Jr.

Mistakes, missed kicks, and inconsistency from Martinez

The mistakes started the scoring when cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt caught a punt, found himself running back towards the end zone, slipped, and was tackled down for a safety. Although Martinez would engineer a drive that ended with a Markese Stepp touchdown run, Connor Culp missed the point after. He’d repeat the feat late in the fourth quarter to leave Nebraska needing a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the game.

The Huskers’ last-minute drive would feature 4 incompletions, a microcosm of Martinez’s entire performance, with 2 pass breakups from impressive Illinois defensive back Devon Witherspoon.

Witherspoon, a sophomore out of Pensacola, was one of several standouts on defense for the Fighting Illini. In addition to his fumble-recovery touchdown, Hart Jr. was a constant thorn in the side of a porous Nebraska offensive line. Joriell Washington made multiple plays in the secondary on his Illinois debut. For a defense that was dire last season, it was an impressive first outing of the 2021 college football season.

Illinois bright on defense, resilient on offense

While the Illinois defense ultimately held out for the win, Nebraska showcased some early defensive dominance. Linebackers Caleb Tannor, Pheldarius Payne, and Garrett Nelson, alongside defensive lineman Deontre Thomas, found themselves in the Illinois backfield early and often. However, Tannor’s exuberance cost Taylor-Britt an interception that could have changed the game for the Huskers.

Another incident in the backfield changed the dynamic of the game. As the Nebraska pass rush enveloped Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters, he hit the ground and was in immediate and visible pain. Peters left the game, replaced by Rutgers transfer Artur Sitkowski, who went 12-15 for 124 yards and 2 touchdowns.

However, the ground game gathered pace with Mike Epstein, and the offensive line that struggled early seemed to solidify with Sitkowski under center. One of the most experienced offensive lines in the Big Ten started slow but gathered steam to allow Illinois to open the season with a win.

The Fighting Illini takes on UTSA next Saturday. Meanwhile, Frost will face Fordham with his seat getting warmer every week.

Ferocious Fresno State led to a convincing win by red-hot Haener

UConn returned to the football field for the first time in two seasons. The Huskies will probably wish they hadn’t. Fresno State quarterback Haener put on a college football clinic in the second quarter, throwing for 3 touchdowns. Meanwhile, running back Ronnie Rivers became the Bulldogs’ all-time TD leader during the 45-0 win.

The Huskies got off to a solid defensive start, limiting Fresno State to seven plays and 28 yards through two drives. However, Arron Mosby caused a forced fumble on UConn QB Jack Zergiotis that he recovered and took to the house for the game’s opening score.

It was a game to forget for Zergiotis, who went 12-24 for 61 yards and no scores. The entire Huskies’ offense only managed 107 rushing yards in a thoroughly forgettable performance. That said, sophomore wide receiver Cameron Ross will be a pass catcher to watch for this season if they can get the ball to him.

Haener an under-the-radar NFL Draft prospect?

It’s unwise to overreact to a college football Week 0 win over UConn, but the biggest takeaway from this weekend could be the emergence of Haener as a potential NFL Draft QB prospect. While Martinez was inconsistent, and Dorian Thompson-Robinson continues to be very much a work in progress, Haener is riding the hot hand.

The former Washington quarterback was sensational on Saturday night. Haener went 20-26 for 331 yards and 3 touchdowns while carving up the UConn defense. Two of his second-quarter scores were one-play, big-yardage scores. He found Rivers for a 61-yard touchdown to make the game 21-0. Just two minutes later, he hit Jalen Cropper for an 86-yard touchdown.

The numbers are good. The tape is better. Haener consistently demonstrated the ability to throw the ball from multiple arm angles. His excellent arm strength allowed him to hit all levels of the field. While the opposition put up little resistance, these are NFL-type throws of the same caliber that helped Zach Wilson elevate himself above the “level of competition” argument.

With Haener, Rivers, and Cropper, Fresno State is a genuine contender in the Mountain West. They’re also a contender for college football’s most exciting offense.

Zach Charbonnet dominates in debut, Chip Kelly tastes season-opening success

Former Michigan running back Zach Charbonnet nearly eclipsed his entire 2019 rushing production on just 6 carries as UCLA ran roughshod over Hawaii in a 44-10 win. Meanwhile, Chip Kelly killed two birds with one stone in achieving his first out-of-conference win and season-opening victory since becoming UCLA’s head coach in 2018.

UCLA leaned heavily on the ground game, scoring 4 rushing touchdowns to lead 31-3 at the half. Charbonnet led the way with 106 yards and 3 touchdowns at a ridiculous 17.7 yards per carry. However, he wasn’t the only Bruins back to taste success. Brittain Brown rumbled to 78 yards and a score while leading the rotation with 13 carries.

While Charbonnet impressed with ankle-breaking lateral agility on one of his scores, there was no mistaking the stars of the show on Saturday. UCLA may have one of the best offensive lines in college football this fall. Left tackle Sean Rhyan is a rapidly ascending NFL Draft prospect, but the entire unit was unstoppable. Right tackle Alec Anderson was particularly impactful as the ground game dominated an overwhelmed Hawaii defense.

Troubles for Thompson-Robinson in college football week 0

While the running game was a resounding success and the offensive line lit up the Hawaii defensive line, Thompson-Robinson’s performance was tepid at best, troubling at worst. In a season where he’s being tabbed to make the leap as an NFL Draft prospect, the UCLA quarterback went 10-20 for 130 yards and a second-half touchdown pass.

He did flash playmaking prowess with his legs, with one effort coming to an abrupt end on an attempted hurdle. However, his struggles as a passer were concerning. There were consistent overthrows, downfield passes that came up short, and instances of him holding onto the ball too long while under pressure.

Despite this, Thompson-Robinson fared substantially better than Chevan Cordeiro. The Hawaii quarterback couldn’t live with an impressive Bruins defensive backfield. He threw 2 interceptions, including Datona Jackson securing a one-handed pick from one particularly ill-advised pass.

While the performance on opening day might ease pressure on Kelly, a tougher opponent awaits the Bruins in Week 2. UCLA welcomes LSU to the Rose Bowl next Saturday night.

Oliver Hodgkinson is an NFL Draft and College Football Analyst for Pro Football Network. Check out the rest of his work here, and you can find him on Twitter @ojhodgkinson.