Game Day: Nebraska vs. Illinois

Stranger things

Nebraska has been in a strange stretch in recent weeks. Injuries everywhere, pick-sixes, an A.D. getting fired, a coaching tenure on the ropes, and, to top it all off, Nebraska invited itself into a difficult Friday Night road-game atmosphere at Illinois, site of the strangest game in the Riley era.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Illinois rush defense

Nebraska’s clear commitment to the run in a 27-17 win over Rutgers indicates that coach Mike Riley believes the Huskers either don’t have the horses or the seasoning yet for the full-fledged passing game, which has accounted for nine turnovers in the last three games. If NU is going to lean on the run — and condense the number of running plays in the process — the Huskers should get more proficient and consistent. Illinois’ defense — a Cover 2 scheme favored by head coach Lovie Smith — tends to invite opponents to run the ball. In 2016 and 2017, opponents tried to run the ball more on Illinois than any other Big Ten team.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Illinois pass defense

If the Huskers don’t have Stanley Morgan, the pass game takes a big hit, as he’s clearly quarterback Tanner Lee’s favorite target. If Morgan plays — even half the snaps — that’s good news for NU, which could take advantage of some so-so Illinois corners. The Illini will often keep their two safeties 12 yards back to defend against the deep pass, so Lee will have to work shorter routes and be efficient on third down. Illinois safety Patrick Nelson is a versatile defender. Nebraska won’t know how open the pass game will be until it sees what Illinois' defense chooses to do.

Illinois rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Illini’s offense is generally poor, but the run game — even when dual-threat quarterback Chayce Crouch plays — isn’t very dynamic. Illinois averages 3.48 yards per carry, and it’s especially miserable in the first quarter (2.11 yards per carry). Nebraska’s rush defense, on the other hand, is allowing just 2.63 yards per carry in the first quarter. Illinois’ inconsistent offensive line should have trouble with Nebraska’s front seven.

Illinois pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

The Illini’s passing game is almost as big of a mess as Nebraska’s. The pass protection is just as bad — Illinois allows 2.33 sacks per game — and Crouch, if he starts, is hesitant and inaccurate. The pass game gets a boost if Jeff George Jr. plays, but he can’t get out of sacks. Nebraska’s pass defense has improved considerably in the last two weeks and should continue to improve the better it understands coach Bob Diaco’s scheme. Nebraska has to win this category.

Special teams

The Illini have solid kickoff and punt coverage teams, but Nebraska has the better returners — especially kick returner JD Spielman — and kicker in Drew Brown. The Illini’s punter, Blake Hayes, is a freshman. He may be due for a mistake that NU punt returner De’Mornay Pierson-El can take advantage of.

Intangibles

Illinois has a bye week. Nebraska has a short week. Illinois has a big Friday night home game. Nebraska has to play in front of a charged-up crowd that will be much larger than usual because of the unique circumstances. Illinois thinks it can win this game. Nebraska is still trying to find its footing and stay injury-free. Former athletic director Shawn Eichorst agreed to and signed off on this. It’s part of why he’s the former athletic director.

Key matchup: Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf vs. Lovie Smith and Hardy Nickerson

This is a pretty fair fight, too. Riley and Smith are both experts in their chosen sides of the ball, and Langsdorf/Nickerson are acolytes of their head coaches. Illinois’ offense can only do so much, so the defense has to either force a few turnovers or a lot of three-and-outs. NU may need a quarter to feel out the Illini’s adjustments to Nebraska’s difficulties at wideout. On the other hand, Illinois may choose to stay in its base defense and invite NU to run the ball. Surely the Huskers would prefer the latter.

Our take

Nebraska has bad memories of its last trip to Illinois, where the Huskers botched an end-game scenario that led to 14-13 loss to the Illini in the final seconds. For an encore, NU decided to agree to a Friday night game in which Illinois got 14 days to prepare. Not ideal. This was a trap game even before Nebraska lost to Northern Illinois, but it really is now. The Huskers will have to run the ball effectively and keep Illinois’ defense off-balance with timely play-action passing. Do those two things, and Diaco’s defense should hold up just fine. Under Friday Night Lights, NU pulls out a road win.

Our prediction: NEBRASKA 20, ILLINOIS 13

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Game notes

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