Illinois begins its conference schedule when the Nebraska Cornhuskers come to Champaign on Friday night. Here are some of the key matchups we are watching out for this week.
Young Illinois DBs vs. Mistake-prone Nebraska QB
The Fighting Illini are young. That’s a fact every patient or impatient Illini fan has to know by now. On the other side of the ball against Nebraska, the Cornhuskers have a quarterback — and it’s hard mincing words here — a quarterback who has, frankly, been dreadful in all aspects of this early season. Tanner Lee (a transfer from Tulane) has barely completed half of his passes and has thrown nine interceptions in just four games. He tossed two pick-sixes in Nebraska’s gut-wrenching loss to Northern Illinois two weeks ago. He tossed two interceptions in the Huskers’ 27-17 home win against Rutgers last week.
Tanner Lee throws his third pick 6 in two weeks. Lee has thrown nine INTs. Armstrong threw 8 all of last year.— Brian Christopherson (@Husker247BC) September 23, 2017
Illinois freshman cornerback Nate Hobbs and sophomore safeties Stanley Green and Patrick Nelson will be counted on to not just cover their respective/assigned receivers, but to directly cause turnovers against a shaky quarterback.
Illinois front seven vs. Nebraska running game
The Nebraska running game can be downright nasty when the offensive line plays well. That’s what happened when the Cornhuskers rushed for nearly 200 yards against Rutgers last week. Juniors Mikale Wilbon and Devine Ozigbo are part of a running back committee capable of wearing opponents down and controlling the clock.
The Fighting Illini gave up nearly 400 rushing yards to South Florida two weeks ago. The nose tackles were pushed off the line of scrimmage easily and once the second half came, the big cogs in the middle were all out of gas to really put up much of a fight. If Wilbon and Ozigbo get into a rhythm and one or more of their runs breaks wide open for a long yardage touchdown, this could be a long, long day for the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Illinois special teams containment vs. De’Mornay Pierson-El
Nebraska’s offensive struggles are clear. One player that can win games in spite of those struggles is wide receiver/punt returner De’Mornay Pierson-El.
It feels like Pierson-El has been at Nebraska for ten years and not only four. He’s been a highly productive player for the Cornhuskers. He caught a touchdown pass against Rutgers and he also did this in the same game:
The Illini special teams has to be wary of containment and what this guy can do when he gets the football in open space. Pierson-El can absolutely crush a team’s spirit and zap all of the energy out of Memorial Stadium in seconds. Don’t let it happen.
Illinois’ quarterback issues vs. Nebraska’s intensifying pressure
It hasn’t been easy going for Lovie Smith in Champaign. The biggest question heading into the game against Nebraska has to be the quarterback situation and whether or not both Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. will play, or if it will be mostly Crouch taking snaps behind center. The Fighting Illini have the benefit of a multi-faceted running game with plenty of solid players including Mike Epstein, Kendrick Foster and Ra’Von Bonner. The Illini have had two weeks to prepare for this primetime home game to sort out those quarterback concerns.
Nebraska has arguably had the most tumultuous first four weeks to start the season as any program in the country. Last week after Nebraska lost to Northern Illinois, the administration in Lincoln fired the school’s athletic director. Nebraska won but did not look too convincing against Rutgers at home. Football is king at the University of Nebraska. This is a program falling further into the depths of irrelevancy with each passing week. Another loss to Illinois in Champaign would suck the life out of Big Red Nation. These are critical, critical times for the fate of what was once one of the country’s most unbeatable football teams.