Game Day: Nebraska vs. Illinois

Switching is seldom old hat

Nebraska's Mike Riley and Illinois' Lovie Smith have each been in the NFL and college, where daily coaching and mentoring of student-athletes differ from dealing with professional players.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Illinois rush defense

Nebraska's coaches openly worry about the “scary” Illinois defensive line, and last season, when Husker offensive coaches did that, it usually meant NU would deviate from the run game if it wasn't working early. But coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf have shown greater commitment to the run this season, and even though the NU offensive line lacks depth — backup guards Sam Hahn and Corey Whitaker are both starting — it should have a size advantage over Illinois' front seven. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong has been dangerous with his legs, and this might be a game where the Huskers' jet sweep comes into play.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Illinois pass defense

Illinois will use man-to-man coverage on early downs and some of coach Lovie Smith's Cover 2 defense on third downs. Thus far, it hasn't worked. The Illini are giving up 8.1 yards per attempt and allowing opponents to complete 67.1 percent of their passes. Those both rank last in the Big Ten. Armstrong has completed only 55.4 percent of his passes, but he's hitting a lot of chunk plays, too, with nine plays over 30 yards.

Illinois rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

Illinois played about as rotten a football game as possible against Western Michigan with just 15 carries for three yards. Its running game — featuring Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Kendrick Foster — is better than that and should top 100 yards against the Huskers. But quarterback Wes Lunt isn't mobile in the least, so the threat of the zone read isn't there. Nebraska's front seven should be able to handle Illinois.

Illinois pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Lunt tends to complete a high percentage of passes for very few yards. That's been the case again this season. The Illini have one NFL caliber wideout — Malik Turner — and he gets the ball a lot (15 catches, 223 yards and 3 touchdowns in three games). Nebraska should have a good answer for Turner in junior corner Chris Jones. Illinois has given up eight sacks in three games. Nebraska's defense had four sacks in its last game.

Special teams

Nebraska's special teams was excellent against Oregon, and then so-so again at Northwestern. Consistency has been an issue for the Huskers thus far, but kicker Drew Brown — both on field goals and on kickoffs — has been excellent. NU could stand to get better at punt and kickoff return. Illinois is giving up 26 yards per return on kickoffs.

Intangibles

The Huskers have plenty of reasons to want to beat Illinois, not the least of which is a 14-13 loss to the Illini last season. They'll have the home crowd, a better turnover margin, a better quarterback and a better roster. The only thing working against Nebraska is that it's been a long two months — the death of of a teammate, the arrest of an assistant coach, a weeklong discussion about player protests — and a bye week looms. Nebraska sorely wants to reach that finish line at 5-0.

Key matchup: NU's O-line and TEs vs. Illinois' front seven

If Nebraska can run the ball against the Illini, it's game over. Illinois lacks the firepower to outscore the Huskers, so it needs to shut down NU's running game, and it won't have the benefit of rainy, cold weather like it did in Champaign last season. It's a tall order for the Illinois coaching staff, but Smith is the coach, and he does know defense.

Our take

Can the Huskers keep their eyes on the prize? It was another long week inside the NU program — thought-provoking as it may have been — and this is a team, so long as it can take care of business against the Illini, that could use a bye week to get healthy and process the last two months of their lives. Illinois may be the worst team in the Big Ten. Nebraska may not play its A game, but it won't need its A game to win.

Our prediction: Nebraska 30, Illinois 14

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Game notes

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