Let’s all take a deep breath. Last week was awful. Penalties. Poor quarterback play. The defense could not get a stop when it needed to. More on those takeaways here. The hype for this coming week’s night game is not as great as it was pre-EMU loss, but the show must go on... there is no other choice but to pick up the pieces and carry on. Night games at Illinois are pretty rare (maybe one or two a season, if that) — so if you’re a student or someone who goes to games regularly — relish these moments, since they’re special.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers look daunting after blowing out our neighbors to the north NIU. They are however not invincible, having a blown a 17-0 halftime lead on the road at Colorado the week before.
The Illinois Fighting Illini are 1-5 against the Nebraska Cornhuskers since Big Red joined the Big Ten in 2011. The lone win circa 2015, as you probably know, culminated in this sensational catch and ending — as Illini Nation from sea to shining sea shouted with hearts and lungs full, “Geronimooooooooooooooooo!”:
There were plenty of painful, gut-wrenching losses for the Illini in 2018. We don’t need to revisit those, but the Nebraska game in particular last year sticks out because the Illini muffed two punts despite quarterback AJ Bush putting on a great performance on the road in Lincoln. Those muffed punts stung just as bad as 63-0 and 46-7.
Let’s hope this game is competitive and worthy of those primetime lights.
When Nebraska has the ball
Adrian Martinez is the prototypical ‘dual threat’ quarterback:
Hand selected by head coach Scott Frost in the recruiting process, Adrian Martinez is already showing improvement in his sophomore year. He always had the ability, and now that he’s more comfortable, a bit more experienced, and just a better and smarter overall football player than he was this time last year — Nebraska is ready to take the next step in Big Ten play.
He extends plays with his feet. He seldom locks in on one receiver — even when he’s scrambling around behind the line of scrimmage, he’s always looking deep downfield for the open guy. In three games so far this season, he has four passing touchdowns and three rushing touchdowns. He’s completed 60 percent of his passes and averages just under 10 yards per completion.
As far as scheme, Nebraska often incorporates zone-read, triple-option plays where Martinez has the freedom to keep the ball, hand the ball off to his running back, or delay the handoff before throwing the ball to a receiver. Just based on the way Nebraska runs their offense, no other quarterback in the Big Ten (except for maybe Justin Fields of Ohio State) has more on his plate and more responsibility in controlling every aspect of the offense as Adrian Martinez.
The Cornhuskers also like to keep defenses honest by trying to cover all ends of the field, sideline to sideline. Like he did at Central Florida, Frost calls many jet-sweeps, fake handoff/reverse plays where pre-snap the receiver will motion from one end of the field to the other. It causes a lot of confusion and can lead to the center of the field being exposed.
Scott Frost also calls a few designed quarterback runs for Martinez throughout the game— where the called play appears like Martinez is running the option, but really — it’s a designed quarterback run the whole time. The offensive linemen and receivers downfield are instantly blocking their man, and it’s more of a down-hill, old-school style of north-south football.
This rushing attack is scary. Lightning and Thunder.
Growing up in Southern California, the USC Trojans of the mid-2000s employed an unstoppable rushing attack behind Reggie Bush, AKA Lightning and LenDale White, AKA Thunder. Thunder was the big, bruising, smash-mouth, not very fast but capable of getting those tough yards type of running of back. Lightning was the speed, breakaway after-burners running back that once he got past the last defender — it was over. Touchdown. Lightning and Thunder were critical pieces to the Trojans dominance.
Nebraska has their version of Lightning in Maurice Washington and Thunder in Dedrick Mills.
A transfer from Georgia Tech (via a stop-gap year in junior college), Mills is about 30 pounds heavier than Mo Washington, and against NIU last week, Mills led the Cornhuskers in rushing with 116 yards and a touchdown. Mills ran for 771 yards and 12 touchdowns at Georgia Tech in 2016 before transferring out. He’s experienced and is used to being a workhorse running back. He does most of his damage in between the tackles. Dedrick Mills is Thunder.
Maurice Washington weighs less than 200 pounds, and once he gets on the outside — it’s game over. A 2018 recruit out of Cedar Hill, Texas and a player who had offers from Clemson, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State and other blue chip programs out of high school — he was a player coveted for speed. Watch this run against NIU last week:
Too blessed to say the least pic.twitter.com/S3xYkIIWaz— maurice washington 3 (@Mo_is_blessed) September 15, 2019
Like Reggie Bush, Mo Washington is also a great receiver out of the backfield and can do similar things once he catches the ball, too. See this catch and run against Colorado two weeks ago:
I’m glad to be here pic.twitter.com/sLNCOSytga— maurice washington 3 (@Mo_is_blessed) September 8, 2019
Maurice Washington is capable of embarrassing defenses. Mo Washington is lightning. Illinois has to be cautious of that.
Not the best unit in the Big Ten, but Nebraska’s receivers are reliably solid:
It feels like JD Spielman has been at Nebraska for 10 years. He’s done a great job as a possession receiver and is a consistent threat. True freshman Wan’Dale Robinson was the star of Nebraska’s 2019 recruiting class. His best days are ahead of him and has similar top-end speed to running back Mo Washington. Seniors Kanawai Noa and Mike Williams are receivers capable of contributing in the passing game.
Tight end Jack Stoll is another weapon down the field for Adrian Martinez and is a nice check-down safety valve for the scrambling quarterback. He’s also a big, big guy and does a great job at blocking. Stoll is a prototypical Big Ten tight end.
When Illinois has the ball
This defensive line is huge. The secondary is experienced and the team’s deepest position group.
Nebraska typically deploys a 3-man front — and the three defensive linemen are big, big men. Freaky big. Defensive end Carlos Davis is one of the best in the Big Ten at getting to the quarterback and wreaking havoc in the backfield. He is 6-foot-2 and weighs 320 pounds, and he’s coming off of a 6-tackle, 1.5 sack performance against NIU.
Senior graduate transfer from Oklahoma State Darrion Daniels is a monster playing just across the line from the center. His numbers from his days in Stillwater aren’t great, but at 6-foot-4 and a generous 340 pounds, he is unmovable at the point of attack. He’s simply an enormous human being who stuffs the middle of the line.
Upperclassmen defensive backs Lamar Jackson, Dicaprio Bootle (15 pass breakups in 2018), Cam Taylor-Britt and Braxton Clark are all ballhawks and really, really good football players.
The star of the defense is middle linebacker Mohamed Barry
The team’s leading tackler from a season ago, Barry already has 28 tackles through three games. His 112 tackles in 2018 was good for 6th best in the Big Ten last year. He’s rangy and really fast, sideline-to-sideline. He had 11 total tackles in the Illini-Nebraska game last year in Lincoln.
Special Teams Notes:
Nebraska’s punt and kick team units are... eventful. If Illinois has an advantage, it’s here.
Nebraska blocking punts, Nebraska having their field goals blocked, Nebraska missing field goals point blank... pretty much any funky thing that could happen in a special teams play happened in the NIU game last week.
I've lost count -- 2 blocked punts, 2 blocked FGs, 1 blocked extra point, fake punt stuffed? Northern Illinois - Nebraska game is a special teams nightmare.— Scott Spreitzer (@scottwins) September 15, 2019
It’s human/football nature to perhaps take your eyes off of the game during a punt or a field goal — in this game against Nebraska, DON’T DO THAT.
Isaac Armstrong is the guy for Nebraska as punter and quasi-kicker — the regular place kicker is sophomore Barret Pickering, and he’s been dealing with an injury that’s caused him to miss every game so far this season. Armstrong is an excellent punter, but when it comes to kicking — his angles are often low, and this appears to be an emergency situation for the Cornhuskers — so much so that Scott Frost is even looking to the club soccer team for help.
Nebraska’s primary kick returner is the speedy freshman Wan’Dale Robinson. He only has three kick returns thus far this season, and he averages over 25 yards per kick return. In the punt-return game, Nebraska opts for the more sure-handed, experienced receiver in JD Spielman. Spielman returned a punt for a touchdown in Nebraska’s opener against FCS South Alabama.