The Illini hit the road for the first time this year as they open up Big Ten play in Lincoln against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Erin Sorensen, editor of the Nebraska site Hail Varsity, was nice enough to answer a few questions about the Big Red.
1. Nebraska can already match last season’s win total with a victory this weekend. What were expectations heading into Mike Riley’s second year and have they already been raised?
Crazy to think about, right? I have called the expectations 'cautious optimism' since the beginning because that's exactly what it was. Honestly, that's how it feels before every game now. There's the belief that the Huskers can win but this caution not to get too far ahead. This year has truly been about taking it one game at a time. I would definitely say expectations have been met and exceeded because fans were so shocked after the results of 2015. You go from firing one coach who typically won nine games and bring in another that only won five. It was rough. This season has been much, much better for everyone's blood pressure.
2. Tommy Armstrong has been playing at an All-Big Ten level to start the season. Did Husker fans expect this from their QB? What has his largest improvement from 2015 to 2016 been?
It depends on who you ask. Some people have understood what Tommy Armstrong was and is capable of, while there is a group that is pretty critical of the senior no matter what he does. I don't think his performance this year is necessarily shocking anyone mostly because there have always been moments where you knew what he could do. As for his biggest improvement, it is absolutely his lack of interceptions. He had 12 in 2014 and 16 in 2015. This year? He only has one. Credit offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf for working to Armstrong's strengths more in 2016, but also give Armstrong some credit for maturing and making better decisions.
3. Nebraska’s defense has also turned it around, ranking in the top ten in the country in takeaways. What factors or players have contributed to this?
The Huskers have intercepted the ball nine times so far this year. Nine. Times. I would credit that to a change in defensive philosophy and to key players maturing. The Blackshirts are not perfect but they're improving. You have guys like Ross Dzuris getting pressure on the quarterback and Nathan Gerry leading the charge to break up those passes. It's a work in progress but it's a lot better at this point in 2016 than it was at this point in 2015.
4. We’ve discussed some of Nebraska’s biggest strengths above. Overall, what is the team’s biggest weakness that Illinois could potentially exploit this Saturday?
I would take advantage of the fact that Nebraska's defense isn't particularly great at stopping the run or pass (again, work in progress). Just go back and look at what Oregon did on offense. Sure, Oregon runs a much different (and faster) offense than Illinois but they ran and passed all over Nebraska. The benefit for the Huskers is that their offense can make up for the points the defense gives up (as long as they don't fumble in the end zone), so if you're going to beat Nebraska, you need to be able to score points and a lot of them.
5. Finally, who wins in Lincoln tomorrow?
I picked Nebraska to win 38-17. I didn't pick that because I'm a homer (but you're welcome to call me one anyway). I just think this is a very different Nebraska team than Illinois saw in 2015.
Thanks again to Erin for answering our questions and be sure to head over to Hail Varsity for some excellent Husker coverage.