Let's see how this team responds to adversity.
Because there's a lot of it. An uninspiring loss to Eastern Michigan in front of maybe 10,000 fans is about as low as it's gotten during the Lovie Smith era. There were moments watching that game where I felt that Illinois was the MAC team, which is utterly depressing in year four of a rebuild.
But hey, enough about last week, let's dive in and see if there's any hope of an upset chance for the Illini this Saturday night.
Just be sound, defense
This was the biggest takeaway from the last two weeks: this defense has no idea what they're doing in coverage.
The safety play has been atrocious. That might be due to both starters being injured, and the lack of depth needed in the back end. But my goodness. There were plays against Eastern Michigan where this defense looked completely lost on basic coverage assignments. The linebackers have failed to improve in that regard either. As effective as Dele Harding was against the run (17 tackles and played well at the line of scrimmage), he was just as bad dropping back to defend the middle of the field. Not to pick on him specifically, because it was all bad, but that can't be happening the fourth year into a defensive system. I know Hardy Nickerson took the fall last year, but this has and always will be Lovie's concept. Right now, it's floundering.
So what do we do to improve? Your best bet this week, probably, is keeping everything in front of you. Lovie was quick to blitz when the front four lacked pressure, but too many times the blitz didn't work. When there is no one to cover the middle, it's up to the safeties as the last line of defense to make tackles in space. That simply didn't happen. Which led to big play after big play.
Adrien Martinez is good enough to beat the Illini over the top, and he's got weapons all over the field offensively. So limit the damage. Keep everything in front. Sound tackling would be necessary. I'm not sure that will be there, but to the pull the upset, it's gonna have to be. Nebraska's wide receivers are a better unit than EMU's. They will make you pay if you cannot tackle. No more man-to-man coverage. Play off a little bit and hold Nebraska to chunk gains.
Another key to the defense slowing the Cornhuskers is reading the quarterback option plays better.
Mike Glass III tore Illinois up with gashing gains on the ground, largely due to the defensive ends crashing hard on the running back and losing lane integrity. That has to be shorn up a bit, or Martinez will destroy this D with his feet. Glass is a solid runner. Martinez is a nightmare. Read and react. Don't sell out for the pass rush. Keep your outside arm free and keep gap responsibility. It won't happen every time, but it has to happen more often than it did against EMU.
Oh, and maybe cut down on the completely unnecessary penalties. Play smarter, sound football and you'll give yourselves a chance.
Win the turnover battle
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Illinois can't afford the back-breaking turnovers and stalled drives offensively. Defensively, Lovie's scheme has always thrived on creating turnovers. It's about time some of these supposed playmakers in the back end make something happen. Win the turnover battle, win the game.
Keep up the pace, offense
It was such a good start and finish to Illinois' offense last Saturday. However, it was what happened in between that can't happen again. I'm not saying the offense has to score on every possession, but there can't be dramatic lulls that last for half a football game.
The biggest thing is re-establishing the running game. Reggie Corbin should be ready to roll, and boy does this offense need him. The reserve running backs have proven to be largely effective, but Corbin adds that explosiveness and elusivity that Dre Brown and Ra'Von Bonner lack. Split the carries still, but Reggie gets the lion's share.
Passing wise, I'm very encouraged by the progress this receiving corps has made from last year. There's more separation happening, and more hands out catches. Ricky Smalling and Josh Imatorbhebhe look like top Big Ten receivers. Trevon Sidney runs some fabulous routes. Daniel Barker has been the most improved player offensively. It looks so much better than in year's past.
It all comes down to the trigger man. Brandon Peters has acquitted himself well in the first three weeks of the season. He's made some mistakes, but he looks to be the best passer Illinois has seen in some time. Now, it's about checking down and looking off defenders to open routes up.
The biggest issue with Peters is his tendency to stare down a receiver until the pressure gets to him. You can't lock on. It's time to grow a bit more comfortable with your second and third options. If pressure comes, throw it away or live to fight another day. There has to be a trust that comes with your entire receiver unit to do its job. I've personally seen Sidney wide open several times, and Peters hasn't even looked his direction. You've got to move your head. Keep your eyes open.
Of course it's easy for me to say that, I'm sitting here not being bullrushed by a 300-pound monster trying to rip my arm off. But it has to become second nature for this quarterback and this offense, or it'll bog down like the second and third quarters against EMU.
Offensive line, it's about cutting down the holding penalties and living up to your reputation as road graders. The run blocking has to get better. Make sure you block everyone on passing downs too. We don't want Peters getting annihilated by unblocked defensive ends. Picking up the blitz will be key this week. Because you know Scott Frost saw Chris Creighton's defensive game plan last week, and is chomping at the bit to unleash the linebackers on stunts and blitzes. Just be sound. Be smart.
Overall, I can't predict an Illini victory, but this is not an uncrackable egg. Nebraska has proved to be quite vulnerable in the early going. This is gut check time for Lovie. It might be the most important game in determining Lovie Smith's future here. Pull off the upset, and people will slowly start to forget last week. It has to start now.