History: It’s been 94 years since the Illinois Fighting Illini last beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers in Lincoln. The year was 1924. The final score was 9-6 at Memorial Stadium on the campus of the University of Nebraska. Coach Bob Zuppke was in his 11th season at the helm in Champaign, and Harold ‘Red’ Grange was just beginning his junior year playing for the Fighting Illini. It would end up being Grange’s best season and one that would cement his legacy as arguably the greatest college football player of all time.
2018 situation: Nebraska will not go bowling for the second straight season. In Scott Frost’s first year as head coach of the Cornhuskers, Nebraska finds itself 2-7 with wins over Bethune-Cookman and against the Minnesota Golden Gophers — the same Minnesota team Illinois beat last week to the tune of a 55-31 blowout. Illinois hasn’t reached a bowl game since 2014, and the Illini will need to win two of their next three to become bowl eligible.
WHEN NEBRASKA HAS THE BALL
Adrian Martinez is good — and getting better
This Nebraska football team has problems, but the quarterback position isn’t one. Save for maybe a few teams in the Big Ten (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State), Adrian Martinez would be a sure-fire starter for all of the other teams in the conference and most teams around the country.
A mobile quarterback who’s comfortable and at his best moving outside of the pocket, Martinez has played really well the last three games against Bethune-Cookman, Minnesota and Ohio State on the road. In those three games, he’s completed over 73 percent of his passes and has only turned the ball over once. He threw six touchdown passes and ran for three touchdowns in that span. He’s extremely talented and looks better each game he plays.
Devine Ozigbo was excellent against Illinois in 2017, and is having a great 2018 season
Linebackers aren’t fond of tackling the 6-foot, 235-pound starting tailback from Nebraska. Devine Ozigbo is a big, downhill runner with a body type reminiscent of running backs Nebraska used to have in the 1980s and ‘90s. In 2017, Ozigbo ran 18 times for 106 yards and a touchdown against the Illini in Champaign en route to a 28-6 Cornhuskers victory.
In Scott Frost’s offense, Ozigbo’s numbers are up from a season ago and he’s more involved in the passing game. His nine rushing touchdowns are tied for second most in the Big Ten with Illinois’ own Reggie Corbin and Penn State’s Trace McSorley — only Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor has more rushing touchdowns than those three. If Ozigbo gains at least 204 rushing yards in Nebraska’s next three games, he’ll become the first Cornhusker with 1,000 rushing yards since Ameer Abdullah in 2014.
The Illinois run defense is bad. It was better against Minnesota, but still the numbers aren’t pretty, and with a bulldozing back like Ozigbo and a slippery quarterback like Martinez, the Illini will give up a bunch of yards and points to this Nebraska offense.
Nebraska’s dominant receiving duo of JD Spielman and Stanley Morgan Jr. means stacking the box is a non-option
Stanley Morgan Jr. had eight catches for 96 yards and a touchdown the last time the Illini and Cornhuskers squared off. This season, both he and JD Spielman have been one of the best wide receiver duos in the Big Ten. The two have combined for 110 catches, 13 touchdowns and just under 1,500 yards receiving.
Morgan is taller and better in the air. Spielman plays more in the slot and is a bit speedier. Both have been reliable weapons for the improving Adrian Martinez. Nebraska can beat teams pounding the rock or through the air, they just haven’t proven they can put it altogether in a complete game this season aside from the Minnesota and Bethune-Cookman games.
WHEN ILLINOIS HAS THE BALL
Run-first, spread-option attack is working
Running back Reggie Corbin and quarterback AJ Bush are both coming off of career games. The RPOs worked to absolute perfection last week against the Gophers, and that should be the game plan when the Illini head to Lincoln in hopes of winning their first Big Ten West road game in three years (at Purdue, 2015).
Against Minnesota, big play after big play (four offensive touchdowns for 65+ yards) cut right through the Gophers’ hearts and ultimately led to P.J. Fleck severing ties with his defensive coordinator. While it would be unreasonable to expect those big plays to happen as frequently against Nebraska as they did against Minnesota, at the very least moving the chains and controlling the clock through an efficient ground game can be expected of this Rod Smith led offense.
The Cornhuskers allow 173 rush yards per game, which ranks 83rd in the country. Linebackers Mohamed Barry and Luke Gifford are tackling machines, and they’ll try to confuse the Illini offense on those RPOs. They lead the team in tackles and tackles for loss.
AJ Bush: Don’t try to do too much through the air, stay the course and use your own personal motivation
AJ Bush was as good as could be expected against Minnesota. With competition from MJ Rivers, he took last week’s opportunity and flourished for 343 total yards and four touchdowns.
AJ Bush knows Nebraska well. A 2014 dual-threat quarterback recruit, Bush was a Nebraska Cornhuskers signee with then-head coach Bo Pelini in the embattled coach’s last recruiting cycle in Lincoln before he was fired. Since then, AJ Bush has had to sit out a year (2016), play in limited opportunities at Virginia Tech (2017) and now finds himself leading the Fighting Illini into Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
It’s not often a starting quarterback has the opportunity to play against a school he once called home. That’s added motivation for AJ Bush to come into a hostile environment and show those fans just what they missed out on.
For what it’s worth, though, Bush said it’s not really something he plans on thinking about too much when asked about it on Monday.
Downfield, Bush will have to keep an extra eye out for Dicaprio Bootle, a sophomore cornerback who leads the Big Ten in deflected passes. Coincidentally, Bootle had just two Power 5 offers as a 3-star cornerback from Miami, Florida. Those offers were from Nebraska and Illinois.
Special Teams: JD Spielman can be dangerous
In press conferences, Lovie Smith often talks about ‘all three phases’, and even when he was the head coach of the Chicago Bears, his teams (led by a certain future Hall of Famer, Devin Hester) often won the special teams battle.
JD Spielman is the primary punt returner for these Nebraska Cornhuskers. He’s sure-handed and more than capable of taking it to the house. Yes, it was against Bethune-Cookman, but have a look:
Last season in Nebraska’s opener against Arkansas State, Spielman, in his first career collegiate game, had a 99-yard kick return touchdown.
Bottom line: JD Speilman is just as dangerous of a returner as he is a wide receiver. He’s not quite as explosive as Purdue’s freshman sensation Rondale Moore, but he’s close and a similar type of player.
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