THE WHEN AND WHERE
Time: 8:00 PM Central Time - Saturday, September 27th
Place: Memorial Stadium - Lincoln, Nebraska
TV: Big Ten Network
For the first time in 2014, the Illini will finally be donning a non-white helmet in a game: they'll wear the shiny orange lids as they travel to Nebraska. Additionally, they'll be sporting orange pants. I expect this combination to look pretty slick.
THE INJURY REPORT
#34 Mike Svetina - Out
#93 Teko Powell - Out
Somehow, almost the entire squad got a clean bill of health this week. That means Paul James III is in line to play, Kenny Nelson is ready to go, and Geronimo Allison is at least better than 90 percent. This game is going to be tough, but a healthy Illini squad has a much better shot than the alternative. Teko Powell is a loss, but the depth at defensive tackle is probably solid enough to hold up.
Led by offensive coordinator Tim Beck, the Nebraska offense has put up absolutely ridiculous numbers in 2014. Through four games, the Huskers are fifth nationally in rushing yards per game (329.0 YPG) and eighth nationally in total yards per game (559.8 YPG). They've also scored 45.5 points per game thus far, good for tenth in the country. Even looking away from the massive total numbers, Nebraska is doing amazing work. Unfortunately for the average Illini run defense, it all starts on the ground for the Cornhuskers.
Running back Ameer Abdullah leads the rushing attack for Nebraska. Illini fans probably recognize his name-he ran for 225 yards and two touchdowns last year against the Illini and is considered a strong candidate in the Heisman race. Abdullah is light on his feet; a shifty back capable of both juking somebody in a phone booth and pushing a pile of linemen with his legs.
Given the Illini's struggle to contain talented rushers thus far, it would come as no surprise if Abdullah finished the game with over 200 yards on the ground-he's already done it twice this year, against Florida Atlantic and Miami (FL). The Illini front seven will have played their best defensive game of the season if Abdullah is held under six yards per carry.
Unfortunately, Nebraska's run game doesn't end with Abdullah. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong is pretty similar to Texas State's quarterback last week: he's capable of breaking big plays on both designed runs and scrambles. Nebraska is ready and willing to run the read option on just about any down-and-distance because of Armstrong's athleticism.
Though he is more reliable in the run game, Armstrong is not too bad a passer. He's not perfect on his reads yet, and doesn't have the best accuracy, but his arm is strong enough to hit deep throws. The offense has such a reliable ground game that it makes passing easier, but Armstrong is something of a threat in this area. He's probably fairly similar Cyler Miles of Washington (in fact, the team as a whole is fairly similar to Washington's composition).
When it comes to receiving threats, Nebraska has a couple of guys that will require attention. Jordan Westerkamp and Kenny Bell are the two biggest threats at wide receiver: they'll start on opposite sides of most formations. Westerkamp was targeted often during the first couple games of Nebraska's schedule, but his production has fallen off a bit since. He has ridiculously good hands.
Bell, on the other hand, has a career resumé that's almost unmatched. He enters Saturday second in Nebraska history in career receptions, third in career receiving yards, and third in career touchdown catches. If he stays healthy, he has a good chance of finishing first in Nebraska history in all three of those categories. Bell can be a big play receiver, as he already has two touchdowns over 40 yards this season.
Nebraska's passing game is pretty simple, but effective. As previously mentioned, the running game is so good that play action and deep routes are extremely effective. Fans can fully expect to see a couple of Nebraska wide receivers all alone this Saturday-they'll break a couple big plays.
One small positive for the Illini in this game may be the potential to force turnovers. It's possible that the Huskers attempt to run the ball down Illinois' throat all night long-that will work for a while, but eventually Illinois is going to dedicate safeties Zane Petty and Taylor Barton strictly to the run game. Getting a couple of stops and force Armstrong to make intermediate reads on passing downs is how the Illini can slow this offense and perhaps even grab an interception or two. The Nebraska offense is explosive, so the Illini will need to focus on preventing big plays (don't overpursue!) and forcing Nebraska to convert on third down. Illinois is going to need the "Boom" to show up early and often this Saturday.
Randy Gregory. The star junior defensive end is perhaps the best lineman in the conference this year. He missed part of or all of the first few games with an injury, but he was back and healthy last week against Miami. In that game, he recorded two sacks and seven total tackles. Gregory is a monster of a pass rusher, but he's not alone.
Defensive tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine are emerging sophomores on the interior. They've combined for five total tackles for loss so far this year and will likely have a couple against Illinois. This defensive front as a whole is just as scary as Washington's. They may not have as many stars, but the supporting players are much more talented and continue to improve each week. The pass protection for Illinois is going to be crucial in this game if they're going to avoid a horrible start like they had in Seattle.
Moving backwards in the formation, Nebraska has a pretty experienced back seven. Junior linebacker David Santos will be out for Saturday's game, which is a big loss for the Cornhuskers.
Santos was second on the team in tackles playing in the BUCK position. He'll likely be replaced by senior Trevor Roach. The other two linebackers, sophomore Josh Banderas and senior Zaire Anderson, have combined for 17 starts in their careers. Both are talented but neither is really a star-- that's kind of the theme of this Nebraska D, outside of Randy Gregory.
The secondary for Nebraska is once again experienced-- are you starting to catch on to a trend here? Steady seniors Josh Mitchell and Corey Cooper bolster the safety and cornerback positions, respectively. The main playmaker of the secondary is safety and occasional linebacker Nate Gerry. Our Cornhusker friends say he's one to keep an eye on.
The opposite of most defenses Illinois has faced this year, Nebraska doesn't really have an identity. They aren't particularly good at any one thing, and they aren't particularly awful at any one thing. One thing to keep an eye on: despite their talented pass rush, Nebraska is currently 72nd in the nation defending on passing downs, according to Bill Connelly's S&P statistics. Even if Illinois is stopped on first and second down, it's possible that they could find some success on third-and-long in this game.
The key thing to watch, once again, is Illinois' pass protection. Pat Flavin appears to be back for the offense (as does Geronimo Allison, for what it's worth), which means the Illini will have a decent back-up right tackle to use if Michael Heitz becomes overwhelmed by Nebraska's pass rush. This will be the biggest challenge of the season for Illinois' offensive front. Hopefully Bill Cubit is able to add some pass protection with Jon Davis or the running backs to help keep Wes Lunt clean in passing situations. Nobody wants to see a repeat of week three against Washington.
THE NAME OF THE WEEK
De'Mornay Pierson-El was the first name that jumped out at me today, and it just so happens that he's an explosive punt returner for Nebraska. Random bet: he runs one back for over thirty yards on Saturday. Unfortunately, this is not the best name on Nebraska. Three others go above and beyond the naming call of duty: OL Chongo Kondolo, TE Freedom Akinmoladun, and OL Tanner Farmer. Yes, Tanner Farmer. And he plays for the Cornhuskers. As tempted as I am to go with a name that perfect, Freedom Akinmoladun gets the honor this week. It would be irresponsible and extremely insulting to our great nation to choose otherwise.
THE #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN UPDATE OF THE WEEK
Jake Howe still has yet to make an appearance at fullback. This makes me sad. The saddest, in fact. The #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN Alert System is at #FATCON5 this week. Maybe a defensive tackle will have a pick six or something. Sadness.
THE FIVE KEY POINTS
Contain Try to contain Ameer Abdullah. There's really not much hope here for the Illini. The only thing that may help them out: Abdullah totaled a massive 35 carries last week against Miami. While that may not mean anything, it's certainly possible that he experiences a bit of fatigue at the game goes on. Aside from that, the Illini defense will just need to stick to their assignments and avoid letting Abdullah get in space.
Contain Try to contain Randy Gregory. The defensive counterpart to Ameer's studliness, Gregory is capable of destroying even the best tackles in the nation. It's asking far too much of Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic to contain him, but slowing him down would allow Lunt to make the necessary reads. Put simply, Lunt is going to need as much time as possible.
3. Force Armstrong to throw. In spite of his name, Nebraska's QB is vulnerable to poor decisions and inaccuracy when put in unfamiliar situations. The Illini secondary will have a couple opportunities for interceptions and they'll need to take advantage if Illinois is going to have a chance of winning.
4. Red zone defense. If the Illini somehow win this game, keeping the Huskers out of the endzone will likely be one of the main reasons it happened. Everybody knows that this offense is going to move the ball and rack up yards. Illinois has done a nice job this season of limiting opponents to field goals. I have to put on my Captain Obvious pants before I write this, but keeping Nebraska's point total low will give Illinois a chance late in this game.
5. Compete. In the words of Tim Beckman and Brady Hoke and other coaches who like to babble about clichés, the best thing Illinois can do for Beckman in this game is compete. Show that they can actually hang with a team like this-- probably the best one they'll face all year-- and that will give some hope for the future. Purdue is at home in two weeks, a must win game for the Illini, and getting shellacked by Nebraska would not be a great lead-in to that showdown.
This is going to be a rough game for Illinois. They don't have a zero percent chance of winning, but this probably doesn't go the way of Beckman more than once or twice in ten games. Nebraska fans are going to be loud. Did you watch the home game against Miami (FL) last week? They were loud. This is another primetime showdown and I don't think anyone really expects Illinois to have a shot. As depressing as it may be, Illinois probably struggles on both sides of the ball against Nebraska. All of Illinois' strengths seem to be matched by the Huskers, and their weaknesses exploited. Perhaps the Illini will have a chance against Wisconsin or Ohio State later this year, but I don't see this one ending well. Let's hope for a backdoor cover!