It wasn't pretty at times, but the Fighting Illini have finished the non-conference portion of the schedule with a record of 3-1. There are still, obviously, plenty of opportunities to capture at least three more wins, but a potentially season-defining test looms on Saturday against the Nebraska Cornhuskers (2-2). Let's give a warm welcome to our friends from Corn Nation as they join us to preview Illinois' Big Ten opener.
1. The Mike Riley era in Lincoln seems to be off to a somewhat slow start, but that's thanks in large part to two excruciating losses at the hands of BYU and Miami (FL). What do Husker fans think of their new head coach so far? Also, what are the expectations for his first season?
Greg: HEY! It's Illinois! The state I call home. Another state without Runza. C'mon...would it be so damn difficult to open up one Runza along the Highway 50 corridor? It won't even affect Chicagoans.
Where was I? Coach Riley...heck of a nice guy. I know he has some thick skin, because BO-lievers still won't get off his ass. I personally am fine with the decision to bring him in as HC. And while I wish him all the success in the world at Nebraska, I see it more of a temporary arrangement, serving as a palate cleanser from the bitter taste of Pelini to something more savory, like...okay, this is getting weird. I expect an eight-win season, with the difference being in how we lose games. I think we'll be competitive even in the losses.
David: Most of the fans I talk to aren't considering jumping off bridges just yet. Frankly, most fans are a little skittish about this team. The past 15-ish years have not been kind to the psyche of the fanbase. When things don't go the way people had hoped, some are assuming the worst. Transitions take time. Conclusions can't be drawn after four games. They are suffering from depth and health issues in the heart of the defense which have really hindered their ability to shut down passing games. The expectations vary wildly, the offense should be able to score a bunch of points, but if they can't figure out how to defend the pass, it won't matter what the expectations are, they won't meet them. Get to a bowl game and show improvement over the course of the season are my expectations. Easy to say, difficult to practice in real time.
Ranchbabe: He has not been caught on a hot mike swearing at the fans yet, so that is definitely in his favor. He actually answers questions at press conferences and is pretty open about recruiting. It makes us feel uncomfortable, like we know something we should not. (Just kidding - Husker fans can't get enough information. If we don't get enough, we just make it up.) Expectations? I predicted a 9-3 season even though my more-realistic-self leaned toward 8-4 being a really good year. The radical change in schemes and athletes needed to excel for each to be successful means that there were going to be growing pains. And of course, I totally nailed the prediction that our talented secondary wouldn't miss a beat and Coach Riley would have to get to know the zone read and option because there was no way he and OC Langsdorf could possibly turn Tommy Armstrong into a top 10 quarterback in passing yards. No way.
Husker Mike: Call me the contrarian on Riley. There's a small group of fans who are less than impressed with Mike Riley, who was in the process of having his contract reduced at Oregon State when he got the call from Nebraska. The only area we've really seen progress is in quarterback play and the receivers, while the rest of the team is struggling - especially on defense. Recruitniks can't be pleased that Riley's 2016 class is ranked pretty much the same as Bo Pelini's 2015 class was a year ago at this time. As long as Riley gets Nebraska to a bowl game, he'll be fine for 2016. Like David says, it's really too soon to make any conclusions about him.
2. Ameer Abdullah may have moved on to the NFL, but Nebraska does return Tommy Armstrong III & Jordan Westerkamp. Are there any other offensive playmakers for Illini fans to keep an eye on?
Greg: Keep an eye on Brandon Reilly (87). He has good hands and quick feet, and offers Armstrong another downfield option. And I don't know if you're familiar with the term "fullback," but Andy Janovich reminds me of a more talented, yet under-utilized Brandon Rigoni.
David: Well, De'Mornay Pierson-El is dropping hints he's back in action. I'd probably suggest watching him...if he indeed plays. Also, NU fans are enamored with the stylings of the bowling ball fullback that is Andy Janovich. I'm just gonna name all the players and take everybody's fun away from them.
Ranchbabe: It's Tommy Armstrong Jr. There might be a TA3, but if there is, Coach Riley hasn't gotten his letter of intent...yet. Pick any wideout and chances are good they could be the one who steps up that day. Coach Riley also learned last week that the fastest way to Husker fans' hearts is to call the fullback trap....with this guy....
On the defensive side of the ball, watch for emerging defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun. He is a redshirt freshman who converted from tight end this fall. Good move Coach Hughes (d-line).
3. What about the defense? Will Wes Lunt be running for his life all afternoon?
Greg: Depends which defense shows up. And I know that's a cop-out. But if the linebackers are healthy, Lunt may have to rely on his legs a bit more. But if Lunt has time to throw, it has the potential to be a big day for the Illini receivers. I don't know if you've heard or not, but Nebraska gives up a couple yards per game through the air.
David: No, probably not. NU has struggled to generate a consistent pass rush and defend the passing game in general. Some of that will probably depend on whether or not injured starters Josh Banderas and Vincent Valentine will be able to go or not. If they are, it could change things, but if they are not, it will be difficult for the Huskers to shut down another talented passing duo.
Ranchbabe: I hope he tries, because the Huskers have been pretty good at stopping the run. OK, serious answer; the pass rush has not been there, but the emergence of Akinmoladun might finally create some relief for Maliek Collins who gets almost all the attention in blocking schemes and has not been able to make plays like he wants. If your coaches go into this with any game plan other than "bombs away", "let ‘er fly", and "go route every play" they should be fired.....oh wait....
4. Who are Nebraska's NFL Draft prospects? Will the Illini be going up against any first round talent?
Greg: I think at the beginning of the season, there was so much excitement surrounding Maliek Collins, and I don't think he's played to that level yet. The potential is there, but the production has missed the mark somewhat. Lombard Montini Catholic's Jordan Westercatch (it's a thing) has a huge upside as a slot receiver. You know the highlights. You've seen the miracles. But I don't know if he's a first rounder, based purely on his size. He's a steal if drafted on a Saturday, though. Honestly, though we have such a small sample size to go off of, I think Michael Rose-Ivey is the closest to that level of play NFL teams want out of a first-rounder. The Blackshirts are a different squad when he's on the field.
David: Collins is the best bet, but I'm not sure it's this year. Nate Gerry will play on Sundays, I think and there's more talk lately that fullback Andy Janovich is turning pro heads as well. Valentine has the talent, but needs to get healthy and a little more consistent. Pierson-El will play in the pros, too, but it's yet to be determined whether or not he'll play Saturday.
Ranchbabe: As far as seniors, Janovich (fullback) is being pumped by Riley to NFL scouts, but it seems unlikely he will be drafted, although he has a small chance to make a roster for the few teams that still utilize a fullback. I think we have at least 3 seniors on the o-line and over the past few years that was good enough for a low draft pick or undrafted free agent to stick on a roster - I just don't see it this year unless things change.
As far as juniors, Collins received the most preseason hype. Whether or not he goes early will probably depend on whether he gets a good enough draft grade or if he feels another year will help him move up. Other juniors that have NFL talent (but I don't see making the jump early) are linebacker Rose-Ivey, safety Gerry, and wideout Westerkamp.
Husker Mike: Senior left tackle Alex Lewis probably was Nebraska's top prospect for the 2016 NFL draft going into the season, but he's not adapted to Riley's offense well at all thus far. The 2017 draft has the potential to see a bunch of Huskers: linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey, safety Nate Gerry, receiver Jordan Westerkamp and defensive tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine will all get a look.
5. What's your opinion of Illinois heading into the game? Do you envision the Illini giving the Huskers much trouble on either side of the ball?
Greg: Illini faithful, take no offense. I'm from Illinois. I was born and raised here. But I do not consider Illinois a football state. Basketball? Yes. Baseball? Certainly. But I feel the overall attitude towards football is sort of "meh." That being said, I also know I can't call my grandma during the game Saturday because I'll be scolded for wearing red instead of orange. If the Nebraska team that showed up in the fourth quarter at Miami shows up and plays all sixty on Saturday, Illinois is in trouble. But I think this Nebraska team is searching for its identity, one that doesn't include idiotic tweets by offended offensive linemen. I don't know what team showed up to play against Southern Mississippi, but I do know that there's only one path to the Big Ten West crown, and the first step is in Champaign.
David: It's limited. The prevailing wisdom heading into the season was that the football program was a mess and this wasn't a game that the Huskers would have to be all that concerned with. Well, Illinois has been better than I expected them to be and their offensive strengths match-up with NU's defense's weaknesses pretty well, so that's concerning. This will be a much more dangerous game for the Big Red than previously anticipated.
Ranchbabe: Yep, what David said. It all depends on how many quarters this team plays like they are capable of playing. It could be 1 ½ quarters, it could be 3 ½. If it is 3 ½ then the Illini will have some trouble. If the Huskers come out as flat in this road game as they did against Miami...woof.
Husker Mike: Depends on how the Illini's receiver corps progresses; injuries have limited them thus far this season, but this week's matchup against the woeful Husker secondary is going to give one of those groups a chance to have success.
6. What's your prediction for Saturday's matchup?
Greg: There's a very good chance that I'll be booted out of the Grange Grove. (Just kidding, I'm quite respectful). No one runs away with this game. But Nebraska wins by two scores. And next year, Bo Pelini is on the Illinois sideline.
David: Shootout. Each team will move the ball. A lot. I'm predicting north of 1,000 yards of offense between the two teams. Illinois will throw the ball so much that NU will luck into a couple of interceptions which will result in points or short fields that the Huskers will convert and it will be the difference in the game. NU's struggled to convert in the red zone a bit, so if that continues it will be a problem for the Huskers. I think they figure that out a bit this week and convert more than they did last week and do more counting by seven instead of by three. Huskers win one that will be closer than Nebraska fans will like 38-34.
Ranchbabe: Points everywhere. Illinois gets theirs via big play (This Husker defense is fairly salty in the red zone and on 3rd down even though they are great at giving up 50 yard plays). Nebraska gets theirs via methodical drives in which they sometimes stall out in the red zone or on 3rd down. Huskers 41 Illini 34
Thank you again for taking the time to answer our questions! For more on Nebraska, make sure to follow Corn Nation on Twitter (@CornNation). You can also check out their website (Link) for news and updates leading up to the game.