Game Day: Nebraska vs. Illinois

Unfriendly skies

The Huskers have dropped eight straight on the road and are 0 for 6 under Scott Frost. But are clearer skies ahead as the team goes to Illinois hoping to snap the skid.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Illinois rush defense

Nebraska’s run game has steadily improved from the first week to the third, culminating in a 238-yard performance against Northern Illinois. Yes, most of NU’s yardage total is due to big runs, but the Huskers are averaging just 1.3 fewer rushing yards per game than Iowa. Illinois’ run defense is giving up 2.7 fewer yards per game than Nebraska’s, but Akron, Connecticut and Eastern Michigan don’t possess NU’s size or skill. EMU grinded out 164 yards at 4.1 yards per carry. Nebraska can do that, and better, if Maurice Washington and Dedrick Mills pop a few long runs. Adrian Martinez will be involved in the run game, as well. Illinois’ linebackers are the strength of its team. Dele Harding is No. 2 in the Big Ten with 30 tackles this season. Jake Hansen has 21.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Illinois pass defense

Nebraska is tied for 20th nationally in yards per attempt (9.4), which means when Martinez drops back, something big is liable to happen. Usually, JD Spielman or Washington are the recipients of that something big, and they’re both tough covers. Spielman just finds a way to be open, and Washington can take a mediocre play and make it special. As Illinois switches its defensive schemes and styles, Martinez has to be on his toes and make good decisions with the ball. And NU’s offensive line has to protect him, because Illinois has 12 sacks this season. Defensive end Oluwole Betiku has six by himself. A caveat: Most of those sacks came against Akron and UConn. Never confuse Nebraska with either of those two teams. Should NU starting left tackle Brenden Jaimes not be able to play, coaches are confident in Broc Bando’s ability to fill in.

Illinois rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

Illinois seems to change its offense annually, and the triple-option scheme from last year that gashed NU’s defense for 383 whopping pass yards has been junked for a spread-passing system. What’s left over? Running back Reggie Corbin, a big-play runner who might get 15 carries per game and end up with 100 yards. He’s averaged 6.4 yards per carry against Nebraska in three previous games, so he’s a big threat. Power backs Dre Brown and Ra’Von Bonner are good complements to Corbin. Quarterback Brandon Peters is not a threat as a runner, and if Illinois can’t stress Nebraska that way, you’d have to think the Huskers’ front seven — anchored by Darrion Daniels with three good inside linebackers — can win the day. Corbin may get his, but Illinois won’t top 150.

Illinois pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

The Illini have really good receivers. The trio of Josh Imatorbhebhe, Ricky Smalling and Trevon Sidney are as good as any Big Ten West trio not in Minneapolis, and sophomore tight end Daniel Barker has seven grabs for 136 yards and two touchdowns. Nebraska’s pass defense has a test here similar to Colorado from a skill-player standpoint. Peters, the former starter at Michigan, is not in the same class as Colorado’s Steven Montez. Illinois’ offensive line is a bit of a sieve, and Peters has been sacked 10 times this season. If Nebraska gets to him, he’s going down — hard. If Peters gets some time, his strong arm can put the ball in places hard for Husker DBs to reach. It’s all about the pass rush here.

Special teams

Illinois isn’t bad in this department. Brown is one of the nation’s better kickoff returners, its kicking game is fairly solid, and opponents haven’t had much success in kickoff returns. Outside of Husker punter Isaac Armstrong and NU’s rock-star punt return unit, Nebraska’s special teams is pretty questionable. Can the Huskers make a field goal longer than 30 yards with its pick-a-kicker wheel? Until Barret Pickering returns healthy, it’s hard to say yes. Nebraska’s special teams has been good when it’s a punt, iffy otherwise.

Intangibles

Memorial Stadium isn’t a bad place to watch a game — if you’re from the opposing team. Illinois football hasn’t been a “thing” in Champaign since the Ron Zook era. Illinois never should have fired him. Current coach Lovie Smith is a good man and a great defensive mind, but he’s never been able to figure out what offense he wants to run and what quarterback he wants. That’s one area where Scott Frost — still growing as a head coach — scores an A-plus. Further, Nebraska’s defense has a kind of road-warrior mentality that serves it well.

Key matchup: Third downs for Nebraska and Illinois

No sugarcoating it: The Huskers haven’t been very good, at all, this season on third down, converting just 39.5% — that ranks 11th in the Big Ten. On defense, NU has allowed a 33.3% conversion rate on third down, which also ranks 11th. Illinois is better in both categories. It’s also played lesser opponents. NU’s offense and defense tends to strike on earlier downs when it comes to big plays and turnovers.

Our take

They aren’t going to get any easier in Big Ten play than Illinois. Even the 2017 Huskers handled the Illini in Champaign. These Huskers should, too. Nebraska needs to get an early lead, hold it and put the Illini away in the second half. Martinez has a big game, so does Spielman, and NU’s defense, even if it takes a few hits, smacks back with its share of sacks. Look for points, lots of them, and a good start to the Big Ten season for the Huskers. They’ll need it. Ohio State awaits after that.

Our prediction: NEBRASKA 38, ILLINOIS 20

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