Game Day: Nebraska vs. Illinois

Pelini's puzzle

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini says the 3-1 Huskers are close to finding the right fit — of players, of playing style — on both units, and are ready to prove something. But questions remain. How will the quarterback storyline play out? Has the defense regrouped? Can Nebraska walk the tightrope to Big Ten title contention? What happens in Saturday's conference opener could go a long way toward providing some answers.

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2-Minute Drill by Rich Kaipust

Nebraska rush offense vs. Illinois rush defense

Nebraska is getting good production from I-back Ameer Abdullah, who has rushed for at least 98 yards in all four games so far and ranks third in the Big Ten at 116.2 per contest. NU also will hit the Illini with an offensive line that is playing well and depth in the backfield. Illinois failed its biggest challenge against Washington, when Huskies tailback Bishop Sankey ran for 208 yards and a TD. Edge: NU

Nebraska pass offense vs. Illinois pass defense

Husker quarterbacks have been efficient so far, completing 70.3 percent of their passes with 11 TDs and just one interception. Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong isn't as polished as Taylor Martinez, but he and Ron Kellogg are surrounded by good targets. Illinois' first three opponents passed for 300-plus yards before Miami only attempted 15 throws against the Illini. Edge: NU

Illinois rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

Illinois has to be licking its chops after South Dakota State tailbacks gouged the Husker defense for 8.8 yards per carry and were never tackled for a loss. The Illini have averaged only 37 attempts a game, so the emphasis will be on getting the most out of those runs and keeping the NU defense honest. Edge: Illinois

Illinois pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Illinois senior Nathan Scheelhaase has been a pleasant surprise in his transition from dual-threat quarterback to a pro-style offense. He ranks No. 10 nationally in passer efficiency and leads the Big Ten with 290.5 yards per game. Nebraska will have to find a way to generate some pressure, but also remember that he can be a dangerous runner if allowed to escape the pocket. Edge: Illinois

Special teams

Illinois has edges in both kickoff and punt return numbers, although Kenny Bell appears to be closer and closer to breaking some kick returns for Nebraska. The Huskers lead all Big Ten teams with 20 touchbacks on kickoffs and rank third in net punting (39.7 yards). Illinois already has missed three field goals. Edge: NU

Intangibles

Both teams have struggled defensively, but Nebraska has forced 10 turnovers compared to just four for the Illini. NU also is coming off a bye, and is 4-0 over the last four seasons in games after a week off. Illinois is leaving its home state for the first time after three games in Champaign and one in Chicago, and the Illini won just four "true" road games since 2008. Edge: NU

Key matchup: NU safeties vs. Illinois' deep pass

It might be a big Saturday for Corey Cooper and the Nebraska safeties with Illinois' propensity for throwing the football down the field (22 pass plays of 20-plus yards). It also could be a welcome change from the first four opponents completing 63 percent of their passes with a variety of shorter throws mixed in. The issue for the Huskers is that their safety play hasn't been great, and it's unclear who will take most of the snaps next to Cooper.

Nebraska wins if ...

Its defense can force some turnovers and avoid the huge play.

Illinois wins if ...

It can give Tommy Armstrong a rude welcome to Big Ten football.

Our take

Illinois already has scored 161 points, more than any previous Illini team ever put up in the first four games of a season. Nebraska is averaging 43.2 per game despite a scoreless second half against UCLA and a let-up against Wyoming. So the bottom line might be which of the porous defenses (NU ranked No. 107, Illinois at No. 92) can piece together a few stops — or which offense can score last. If the conditions are at all a factor, the Huskers have an ace in the hole with their running game.

Our prediction: Nebraska 40, Illinois 35

Live updates

 

Videos

Extras

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Big Red Today coverage

The Big Ten Roundup with Lee Barfknecht: Replay

Replay Wednesday's "The Big Ten Roundup" chat with staff writer Lee Barfknecht to track the latest news from around the conference.

Live Blog The Roundup with Lee Barfknecht: Noon

Shatel: Handing out Blackshirts? Pelini made them earn it

LINCOLN — It took about 51 days, or seven games, for the fabled Nebraska Blackshirts to make their first appearance in the players’ lockers.

Apparently that wasn’t a problem.

“I ...

Scarlet Knights say Big Ten success within reach

LINCOLN — Two leaders on the Rutgers football team attributed a big 56-17 loss at Ohio State to the small stuff.

“We made little mistakes, and them being the team that ...

Rutgers preview: QB Gary Nova, Knights hit wall in league play

By the numbers

5-2: Overall record (1-2 in the Big Ten)

6.32: Offensive yards per play (32nd nationally)

6.28: Defensive yards per play (107th nationally)

-4: Turnover margin ...

Husker notes: Nebraska wary of deep ball from Rutgers

LINCOLN — Rutgers’ ability to attack downfield through the air certainly concerns Nebraska as it prepares a game plan for the new conference foe.

Defensive coordinator John Papuchis said he thinks ...

Husker Sam Foltz appreciating punting’s finer points

LINCOLN — It’s the most common statistic associated with punters, but hardly right there on the mind of Nebraska’s Sam Foltz.

What’s your punting average after seven games ...

Big Ten notes: Gophers' kicker has big leg, big frame

If you haven’t seen Minnesota try a place kick this season, that isn’t a defensive end lining up the boot.

Ryan Santoso, at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, hardly ...

Barfknecht: Purdue’s turnaround on right track under Darrell Hazell

This isn’t a worst-to-first story, but Purdue football has made greater gains in Year Two under coach Darrell Hazell than expected.

The Boilermakers, who have a bye this week ...

Husker notes: Maliek Collins, Randy Gregory catch eye of Rutgers coach Kyle Flood

LINCOLN — Rutgers faced arguably the Big Ten’s best defensive line last week at Ohio State. The Buckeyes won the battle decidedly, holding the Scarlet Knights to 149 yards rushing ...

Husker defense back in black, and aiming to keep it that way

LINCOLN — Each Husker has his own way of relishing the moment that he spots the black practice jersey in his locker, but each one knows how fleeting this sense of ...

They said it: Rutgers coach Kyle Flood on Ameer Abdullah and 'tremendous challenge' of playing Nebraska

Here's a transcript of comments from Rutger's head coach Kyle Flood on Monday at his weekly press conference.

KYLE FLOOD: Good morning. It's an exciting weekend for ...

Video: Husker football weekly press conference

Husker coach Bo Pelini and several players addressed the media Monday as the team prepares to take on Rutgers.

Coach Bo Pelini

Receiver/returner De’mornay Pierson-El

Defensive end Greg ...

Lunch with Tom: Replay

Hungry for some sports chat? Join World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel at 10 a.m. for an early edition of “Lunch with Tom” to discuss Nebraska’s matchup with Rutgers and ...

Q&A with Husker defensive end Greg McMullen

The sophomore has continued his solid first season as a starting defensive end for the Huskers. Through seven games, the 6-foot-3, 280-pounder from Akron, Ohio, has 24 tackles, 2½ sacks ...

Notes: Nebraska prepares for morning game after five straight at night

LINCOLN — The night owls will get a brunch kickoff.

After five straight games with kickoff times of 6:30 p.m. or later, Nebraska will have its first 11 a ...

Price earns time, finds rhythm against Wildcats

LINCOLN — Givens Price understood why Nebraska assistant coach John Garrison didn’t call on his backup offensive linemen at Michigan State, even though that was part of the plan.

Price ...

McKewon: Husker defense feasting on third downs

LINCOLN — Defensive end Greg McMullen calls it “time to hunt.” Safety Nate Gerry opts for “time to eat.”

Either way, Nebraska’s defense this season has had a feast on ...

Armstrong’s ‘happy medium’ results in job well done

LINCOLN — Tommy Armstrong looked back at his clunky first half at Northwestern and said after the game that he knew what caused his slow start.

He was thinking too much ...

Shatel: Red-faced over seeing Doug McDermott in purple? Silly

People have asked what I thought about Doug McDermott’s video at the Northwestern game. Well, I thought he looked good in purple.

» This story is so much fun, I ...

Nebraska moves up 3 spots in Top 25 polls

Nebraska is up three spots in the AP Top 25 poll following the team's 38-17 win over Northwestern. They Huskers are now No. 16 in the AP poll.

The ...

Barfknecht: Iowa running out of answers

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The Iowa football team is well-schooled on how to handle the media after games.

Following wins, the Hawkeyes deflect the spotlight, credit teammates and observe that more ...

Notes: Price, Kondolo make most of their time vs. Wildcats

After not playing in Nebraska’s loss at Michigan State, juniors Givens Price and Chongo Kondolo had a conversation about what they could do to find their way on the ...

Husker defensive tackle Williams already looking forward to Rutgers

LINCOLN — Moments after enjoying his best performance as a Husker, defensive tackle Kevin Williams was ready to talk about next week.

The back-up lineman tallied 2 1/2 sacks in ...

McKewon: Second-half dominance gives Huskers momentum

SITTING AT THE GATE (AGAIN) AT O’HARE AIRPORT — You really haven’t lived until you’ve put in a token 15 minutes of waiting in a small, packed plane ...

From the sidelines: Husker fans take over; McDermott on video board

EVANSTON, Ill. — As they did two years ago, Nebraska fans showed up in force and raised the noise level Saturday at Ryan Field.

More than half the crowd of 47 ...

Second half sees Wildcats wobble

EVANSTON, Ill. — If Nebraska’s 38-17 victory over Northwestern is viewed as a tale of two halves, the second part is one Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes never has a ...

Chatelain: Tim Beck’s new weapon is catching on

EVANSTON, Ill. — Frank Solich called the play “Black 41 Flash Reverse.” Tim Beck just called it “Texas.”

"Because Tommy’s from Texas," Beck told me.

The Husker offensive coordinator installed ...

Quarter by quarter: Nebraska 38, Northwestern 17

World-Herald staff writers Sam McKewon and Jon Nyatawa recap the key plays in each quarter of Nebraska's win over Northwestern.

* * *

First quarter

Kenny Bell: The Nebraska wideout is healthy ...

Tracking the Husker offense, defense

World-Herald staff writer Rich Kaipust takes a look at Nebraska's effort on both sides of the ball during the Huskers' 38-17 win over Northwestern.

* * *

Tracking the offense

The game ...

Nebraska-Northwestern: Five things we learned, don't know

Five things we learned and five things we still don’t know coming out of Saturday's Nebraska-Northwestern football game.

* * *

Five things we learned

1. Nebraska found innovative ways to ...