Illinois (3-1, 0-0) at Nebraska (3-1, 0-0)
Time: 11am Central
TV: ESPNU (Tom Hart, John Congemi)
Line: Nebraska -9.5
Forecast: 49 degrees, sunny, windy with 22mph winds
Enemy Territory: Corn Nation
THESE FOUR THINGS
1. Survive The First Quarter. This game doesn't just signify the first conference game of the season. It's also the first time this year the Illini will be playing in a hostile environment. And while it's nice that the youth on this team has four games of experience under its belt by now, it's still only four games and playing on the road is a lot different than playing at home. From the routine before the game to communication on the field, things are going to be different and more difficult.
Also, even without Taylor Martinez playing for the Cornhuskers this week, this is still a Nebraska team that has had an extra week to prepare for the Illini. So when you combine the homefield with the extra prep, I just have a feeling the Huskers are going to get off to a quick start in this game. But the Illini have to weather that opening storm.
Which, given this team's conference losing streak, could be a huge blow to the team's confidence for the rest of the game. But it's important to remember that this is the Nebraska defense they're dealing with, and nobody's ever out of a game against the Nebraska defense.
2. Slow Down The Nebraska Run Game. Let's think about this for a minute. There are going to be winds blowing greater than 20mph tomorrow, Nebraska is starting its backup quarterback and the Nebraska defense is terrible. It doesn't exactly take a genius to try and figure out what the Cornhuskers are going to try and do tomorrow.
They're going to run, then they're going to run again and probably run some more after that.
Now, I'm not going to even entertain the notion of the Illini defense stopping Nebraska's rushing attack. Ameer Abdullah, Imani Cross and Terrell Newby are simply too good, and the Nebraska offensive line can open some holes. There's also the Illini defense itself, which is currently allowing 4.31 yards per carry and has only 17 tackles for loss (not including sacks) on the year.
So to think the Illini can stop the run game altogether is just ridiculous. However, they need to slow it down. They need to find success during drives and force the Cornhuskers into third and longs. Tommy Armstrong had a good game last week, but even if the Illini defense isn't great, it's not South Dakota State, either. So put the redshirt freshman in a position where he has to beat you. If he does, he does.
3. We're Going To Have To Run The Ball Too. The only team in the Big Ten running the ball less often than us is Purdue, and that's because the Boilermakers are down 30 points at the end of the first quarter. Odds are that's going to have to change a bit on Saturday because high winds are going to make it a lot more difficult for Nathan Scheelhaase to drop back and sling it all day.
Odds are we're going to see a lot of short passes on Saturday as the wind will basically negate the deep ball, which has been a big part of the offense so far this season.
Also, the Illini will want to run the ball for the same reason Nebraska will want to run the ball. To keep the other offense off the field. Time of possession is a very overrated statistic, but with two teams like these in the conditions they'll be facing tomorrow, I can damn near guarantee you that the team that has the greater time of possession at the end will also have more points.
4. Make A Play On Special Teams. The special teams units have vastly improved this year. We've already seen V'Angelo Bentley return a kick over 100 yards for a touchdown, and Bentley is currently leading the nation with 37.5 yards per kick return. He's been good on punt returns as well, averaging 15.83 yards per return and nearly breaking free for a touchdown last week.
In order for a team like the Illini to go on the road and beat Nebraska, they're going to need to make a big play on special teams. It might not even be a return for a touchdown. It could be a fake, it could be another surprise onside kick, or it could be a blocked punt. Any of these things would go a long way to helping the Illini pull off an upset.
Fornelli: We all know that I'm a lot more optimistic about this team now than I have been in the past, and I am very happy with what I've seen so far this season. However, even if Taylor Martinez isn't playing, this just isn't a game I think the Illini are quite ready to win. Any major upset the Illini pull off this year will take place in Champaign. That and the fact I think the windy conditions will make life difficult on the Illini offense makes me seriously doubt that the Illini will be able to keep up with Nebraska. Nebraska 38-21 (2-2 on the season).
Primiano: Before the season started, I would have said a trip to Lincoln would result in an absolute Illini blowout. Now? I'm not so sure. Both teams feature explosive offensives and porous defenses. I think Nebraska is the better team though and Illinois' inability to contain dual threat QBs ultimately does them in. Nebraska 42-35 (3-1 on the season).
Birkhead: I don't think this game is impossible for the Illini to win, but the defense will have to step up in a big way to do it. The defense is struggling to stop the run, and Nebraska has one of the most effective and versatile running games in the nation. The Huskers will put up a lot of points, and hopefully the Illini can keep pace, but at the end of the day, being on the road will be too much for the Illini. Nebraska 45-33 (2-2 on the season).
Cassidy: I've been hard on Illinois this year. I'm either picking them to lose or writing some snide garbage about how they should lose. And maybe I need to ease off, give Beckman his second year of development, and just be an undying fan. Maybe I need to realize that this isn't last year's team, thank the sweet heavenly galloping ghost. Maybe, I should shut up and support. So that's what I'm doing. The Illini are taking this one, dammit, and they're taking it in a shootout. I-L-L! Illinois 38-35 (2-2 on the season).