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What Needs to Happen: Nebraska

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What do the Illini have to do to beat a rapidly improving Nebraska team

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

A bit of noise started entering the system after the Illini endured three consecutive blowout losses at the hands of Purdue, Wisconsin and Maryland. But Saturday’s win over Minnesota seems to have quieted the negativity surrounding Illini Football.

Now, the Illini must try to capitalize on the momentum they built last week as they aim to win back-to-back Big Ten games for the first time since late November of 2014, when the Illini beat Penn State at home and Northwestern in Evanston to close the season and clinch a bowl berth.

Nebraska comes into this game at a lowly 2-7, but they’re as good a 2-7 team as you will find in College Football. The Huskers are rapidly improving, and as reflected in their S&P rating of 56, they fit the profile of a team that could have already won 5 or 6 wins.

The Illini, with an S&P rating of 100, made significant strides against Minnesota last week but will have to put together their best performance of 2018 to topple the Huskers.

So, what do the Illini have to get a victory in Lincoln?

Offense

Quarterbacks must make the right reads

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith is winning the hearts of everyone associated with Illini football after a 600-yard output that provided over 50 points. His offense has several run-pass options built into it so the quarterback position must make the correct read at the point of attack in order effectively attack the defense.

Against Minnesota, AJ Bush had his best game since arriving in Champaign. Nonetheless, Bush did miss a few reads and was bailed out by the individual brilliance of Reggie Corbin or the incompetence of Minnesota’s defense.

Here we see Bush hand off on a zone read to Corbin when he could have kept it and likely outran the Gopher’s DE and into the open field. Luckily, Corbin makes the LB whiff and gets a nice gain.

The play below is pass all the way, but Bush does not see the corner route open and instead checks down.

Against Nebraska, Bush will have to make the correct reads that will, on most plays, allow the Illini to stay ahead of the sticks, and — when given an opportunity — will have to make the big play that is there to be made instead of checking down to a safety valve.

Defense

Self Scout to Confuse Adrian Martinez from the snap

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Michigan Detroit Free Press-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since the Huskers 56-3 loss to Michigan, the Husker offense has improved drastically. This has in large part to do with Adrian Martinez’s increasing comfort running Scott Frost’s triple-option spread. Frost’s offense is predicated on reading defensive lineman and then freezing linebackers to either get leverage to the perimeter, open runs up the middle or find gaps between the secondary and the linebackers in the pass game.

Long story short, the Huskers’ offense has several ways it can punish a struggling Illini defense. But, in order for Nebraska to get in rhythm, it has to have an idea of what the Illini are doing based on their pre-snap alignment. If Martinez can predict what the Illini defense is going to do, then he will eat them alive. Therefore, the Illini’s best shot at limiting the Husker offense is too confuse Martinez with their pre-snap alignment. This means the Illini have to figure out their pre-snap tendencies and alter them at the outset.

Nebraska will eventually get a read on what the Illini will do, but if they can confuse Martinez early, then it well set them up to continually confuse because once the Illini break their pre-snap tendencies, the entire game becomes unpredictable for Martinez.

Special Teams

Steal points when you can

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Nebraska’s special teams have been dismal this year. These issues cost Nebraska dearly last week against Ohio State as the Buckeyes generated 16 points from Nebraska special teams miscues.

The Illini special teams have actually been a bright spot, so it is imperative that the Illini try to take advantage. Whether it’s a blocked punt, blocked field goal, or explosive plays in the return game, a big play on special teams could deflate Nebraska.

Although the Huskers are better than their 2-7 record, those 7 losses likely weigh heavily on their psyche, so a big special teams play could cause serious damage.

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