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Illinois needs to stick to the formula in Lincoln

Illinois’ strengths match up very well against the Cornhuskers’ weaknesses.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Both the Illini and the Nebraska Cornhuskers will be coming off bye weeks when they meet in Lincoln on Saturday. No doubt, interim head coach Mickey Joseph will have some tricks ready for Illinois, but the Illini should be able to return to Champaign with a win if they can simply keep playing the brand of Illinois football that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing this year.

Two weeks ago, Nebraska’s offense went wild against the Purdue Boilermakers by putting up 354 yards through the air and scoring 37 points before ultimately coming up short. How did the once hapless Huskers put such a performance together? Largely because Purdue didn’t...

Prevent Big Plays through the Air

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois’ pass defense has been nothing short of extraordinary this season. Holding opponents to only 143 passing yards per game on average has earned the Illini one of the best marks in the country in that category.

Both Devon Witherspoon and Quan Martin have been integral to making that happen, while Sydney Brown and Kendall Smith have excelled at cleaning up any mistakes.

The entire Illinois secondary will need to be playing at a high level on Saturday, since Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson and receiver Trey Palmer form the nexus of the best passing attack that the Illini will have seen all year. Both Thompson and Palmer transferred to the Huskers from elite programs (Texas and LSU, respectively), and their chemistry with one another is undeniable.

Palmer’s 297 receiving yard performance against the Boilermakers was simply unreal, as he and Casey Thompson almost singlehandedly kept the game close until the end. I have confidence in the Illini secondary, but this Cornhusker passing offense is undeniably much more explosive than those of prior opponents led by middling quarterbacks like Spencer Petras, Graham Mertz, and Tanner Morgan.

Playing lock-down coverage is key to preventing big pass plays, but the other critical way to prevent what Purdue experienced is to...

Consistently Pressure Casey Thompson

NCAA Football: Iowa at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The onus here is again on the defense, but it’s another situation where I feel the Illini are more than up to the challenge. The defensive front of Gabe Jacas, Keith Randolph, Johnny Newton, and Seth Coleman is one of the most productive Illini units I’ve seen in the decade-plus that I’ve spent watching the program. Combined, those four players have 15.5 sacks and 23 quarterback hurries so far this season.

The Illini defensive line and linebackers get into the opposing backfield and disrupt both run and pass plays with uncanny regularity, even against the solid offensive lines of Illinois’ traditional Big Ten West rivals.

Fortunately for Illinois, the Husker offensive line is experiencing a bit of upheaval at the moment. Down three starters due to injury from where they were at the beginning of the season, the once vaunted Nebraska “Pipeline” is now just a shell of its once legendary self. This game should be an outstanding opportunity for the Illinois defense to come off a long rest and continue to simply...

Play Illinois Football

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Bret Bielema Illini really don’t seem to be fazed much by playing on the road. Both wins against ranked opponents last season came on the road, and Illinois’ dominating win over the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall earlier this month also comes to mind.

But even though Nebraska may be at rock bottom as a program, Memorial Stadium in Lincoln is always an intense place to play. It’s (literally) always sold out, and the fanbase’s unwavering support of the Huskers is renowned throughout college football.

Tommy Devito and the Illini offense just need to play loose and relaxed football, like they did at Wisconsin, and continue to run Barry Lunney’s offense. I’m confident that the Illinois offensive should handle their own as long as they minimize mistakes. With Nebraska’s defense being one of the worst units in the Big Ten, Chase Brown should have another banner day on Saturday, especially since he’ll be spotted once again by Josh McCray.

So as long as the Illini defense can keep their composure on the road against a dynamic Husker offense, then I feel pretty good about Illinois locking up their first regular season winning record since 2007 on Saturday.