As the Illini continue to win, expectations are rising.
On Saturday, the Illini are favored against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Illini are coming off a bye week, but this has not tempered expectations, as Illinois has risen to No. 17 and have fans talking about a trip to the Big Ten Championship.
With a prime opportunity on national television, the Illini have a chance to show the nation they’re legit as they hope to resist tripping up against a disappointing Nebraska team.
Season So Far
This season has been eventful for the Cornhuskers. Coming into this season, Scott Frost was on thin ice as Nebraska ended with a 3-9 record. They opened the season with an abysmal loss to Northwestern in Ireland and squeaked out a closer-than-expected win against North Dakota. The Cornhuskers lost to Georgia State and Scott Frost was fired the day after.
While the Cornhuskers have not named a replacement, while big names like Urban Meyer and Matt Rhule have been linked to the job, it’s more likely they keep interim coach Mickey Joseph or hire Kansas coach Lance Leopold.
Since Frost’s firing, Joseph has gone 2-2 with wins over Rutgers and Nebraska. In the past two seasons, Nebraska has lost all but one of their games by single digits and this has continued under Joseph.
The Cornhuskers have shown life on offense in high-scoring games against Indiana and Nebraska and have enough talent to compete with any team in the Big Ten West.
The Cornhuskers have had adequate quarterback play by Casey Thompson who transferred from Texas after 3 seasons. He has thrown for 1,851 yards and 11 touchdowns. Thomas is going to use his arm to create offense against Illinois as he is not a running threat.
The Nebraska offense has been incredibly inconstant this season and they haven’t played a team with the quality of defense as Illinois.
The Nebraska running back room is relatively balanced with 5 running backs running for 60 or more yards. It’s led by JUCO transfer Anthony Grant who has had 682 yards and 6 touchdowns. He had a big game against Northwestern which helped Nebraska prevail.
While Grant will look to run between blockers for big gains, Illinois will limit the effectiveness of the Nebraska run game. Illinois has the second-best run defense in the nation, limiting its opponent to 79.8 yards per game.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
LSU transfer Trey Palmer is Nebraska’s biggest threat on offense as against Purdue he set Nebraska’s record for receiving yards in a game with 237 yards. He also leads the conference with 111.6 yards a game and has had 5 touchdowns. He is the most athletic and explosive player for Nebraska, and they will try to run their offense through him. He single-handedly kept Nebraska close to Purdue so expect him to have a big game.
Beyond that, Marcus Washington has had a productive season for the Cornhuskers as he has caught 21 passes for 296 yards. Nebraska will attempt to spread the ball out to every wide receiver to create offense.
While Illinois hasn’t faced a truly potent passing offense yet, they rank fifth in the nation in pass defense. This game will test Illinois’ passing defense, and especially the Illini secondary.
Against Purdue, the Nebraska defense got torched, giving up 43 points. Aidan O’Connell threw for 391 yards and four touchdowns and Devin Mockobee, Purdue’s running back, ran for a career-high 178 yards.
Throughout this season they have had much success as they rank 124th in the nation in total defense giving up an average of 471 yards per game. Nebraska’s defense is led by captain Garrett Nelson who has 37 total tackles and 4.5 sacks.
The Nebraska defense will have a heightened focus on stopping the Illinois run game as Chase Brown has been on an absolute terror this season. This should create plenty of opportunities for Tommy DeVito to find open receivers. For Nebraska to be successful, they need to force the Illini to be in the 3rd-and-long situations where they can solely play the pass.
What to Expect
On paper, the Illini have a clear advantage on both ends of the ball. Chase Brown will need to continue to pound the ball and force the Nebraska defense to sell out on first and second down. Nebraska will try to play a high-scoring, fast game and hope to get the ball to Trey Palmer.
Let’s hope the Illini stick to the run game and continue their rise in the polls.