Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini: Complete Game Preview
Not many Nebraska fans put much stock in the Homecoming game versus Illinois. That is until the Fighting Illini beat Miami (Ohio) with a final score of 50-14.
It is a secret to no one at this point that the Huskers are having some defensive struggles. However, head coach Bo Pelini assured Steve Sipple of the Lincoln Journal Star that he will fix the issues.
Regardless, Saturday's matchup has become one to watch. With Nebraska still reeling from the loss to UCLA, conference play is the time to get back on track.
This is the first time Illinois has traveled to Lincoln, Neb. since 1985. Nebraska leads the all-time series by a 7-2-1 margin (the Illini's two wins came in 1923 and 1924). The Huskers also hold a 5-1 lead in games played at Memorial Stadium.
Both teams enter Saturday's matchup with a 3-1 record with the only losses coming at the hands of Pac-12 teams. This is truly the first test for both programs.
Who will walk away victorious?
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb.
When: Saturday, Oct. 5, at 12 p.m. EST
Listen: Husker Sports Network
Betting Line: Nebraska (-10.5)
Nebraska's Keys to Victory
Mind the Gaps
Opposing teams run the ball so well against Nebraska because of the gaps left open by the defense. Grant Muessel of Hail Varsity took a look at this issue after the South Dakota State game. Muessel said:
Simply put, the gaps between players on the offensive line of scrimmage are gaps A through C. A sound two-gap defense (like the one Pelini runs at Nebraska) reads the offensive blocking scheme and reacts, choosing which gaps to “fill” but leaves responsibility for linebackers and defensive backs in others. You might say the goal of a two-gap defense is to allow linebackers to make the plays, which in the case of Nebraska, might be two true freshmen most of the time.
With the bye week, defensive coordinator John Papuchis should have reevaluated the gap integrity. It's going to be crucial going forward, otherwise the same issues will keep plaguing the Nebraska defense.
Commit to Running the Ball
This could be a tricky point if quarterback Taylor Martinez starts and isn't 100 percent healthy. Basically, if Martinez plays before he is ready, running the ball could take a hit. If he is healthy, it should be okay.
Regardless of which quarterback starts, there needs to be a level of commitment to running the ball. That doesn't mean Nebraska shouldn't put the ball in the air when necessary. Instead, it means a balanced game plan will do nothing but benefit the Huskers.
In fact, as reported by the Lincoln Journal Star's Brian Christopherson, the Huskers had more than 300 yards rushing and passing in the same game for the first time in school history against South Dakota State.
That's a positive number that Nebraska will want to build upon. Replicating it will require a smart game plan from offensive coordinator Tim Beck and commitment from the offense.
Balance is a great thing for Nebraska. Running the ball adds to that balance.
Nebraska has an advantage over Illinois with the size of its crowd. With over 90,000 fans, Memorial Stadium can be intimidating. It can also be loud.
However, against South Dakota State, the student section was visibly more empty than usual. Fans were also not quite as loud as they could be. While the opponent was not as worrisome, it's still something worth pointing out.
On Saturday, show up and be loud. If there is one way to shake Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and force mistakes, it will happen when the crowd noise is loud. The whole game can't rely on just fans but it never hurts to have the support.
Illinois' Keys to Victory
Run the Ball
Nebraska currently is last in the Big Ten in total defense. While Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will want to throw the ball, there isn't a lot of need to.
The Huskers are currently ranked 10th in the Big Ten in rush defense. The young defensive unit allows too many gaps, allowing opposing teams to run right through.
If Illinois can play to this weakness, it should be successful at moving the ball down the field. With a talented running back in Josh Ferguson, the Illini should give the sophomore the opportunity to run. If the Huskers didn't adjust during their bye week, it shouldn't be difficult for him to do.
Pass the Ball, Too
The Illini just need to focus on their offensive game. If this game becomes a shootout in any way, Illinois will stay competitive by also throwing the ball.
Illinois really doesn't need to throw the ball. In fact, the biggest room for error will be when the ball goes in the air, as that is where Nebraska's defense is still decently strong. However, Scheelhaase is first in the Big Ten in passing yards, passing efficiency and total offense. There's no point in not letting Scheelhaase toss the ball off.
As long as passing the ball is balanced with running it straight at Nebraska, Scheelhaase and crew could make a dent and scare the Huskers a bit.
This seems easy enough but it's crucial for Illinois.
Since Bill Cubit took over as the Illini's offensive coordinator, the team has made some huge leaps in the right direction. In fact, under Cubit, Illinois has jumped ahead at least 80 spots nationally on long scrimmage plays, scoring offense, passing efficiency, passing offense, total offense and turnovers lost. That's pretty impressive.
Adding to is, the Illini have scored a school-record 161 points in their first four games of the season. That beat a nearly 100-year-old record of 158 points in the first four games for Illinois.
Illinois needs to play with that knowledge in the back of their head. The offense has made such significant improvements that there is no need to walk into any matchup worried. It may not be the easiest road but the Illini have fought back.
The team will have to keep fighting but the confidence gained from how far they've come will be beneficial.
Players to Watch from Nebraska
Taylor Martinez (Sr, QB)
Once again, senior quarterback Taylor Martinez is on the watch-list. Similar to South Dakota State, it's mostly due to the fact that many don't know if he'll start.
Martinez wants to start. Head coach Bo Pelini knows this. In his weekly press conference, Pelini discussed Martinez's will to play, via Huskers.com:
I would assume Taylor wants to play. At the same time, I deal with the doctors and the trainers. Taylor knows. I’ve talked to them. We’re not putting him out there until I know he’s going to feel 100 percent.
Battling back from a turf-toe, Martinez will be limited if he's not 100 percent. If he's still struggling, it would be wise for him to sit out one more week. This is what makes him an interesting player to watch. Whether he starts or not, Martinez will prove a lot by Saturday's decision.
It could also make or break his season if he doesn't make the right one.
Randy Gregory (Soph., DE)
The comparisons have begun for Randy Gregory.
According to the Lincoln Journal Star's Steve Sipple, Pelini had said Gregory "is probably ahead of where Lavonte [David] was at that time."
That's quite the compliment. It also is a statement that would catch some attention.
However, Gregory has earned the comparisons. With 17 tackles so far this season, Gregory is tied for sixth in tackles on the team. He also boasts a team-best five tackles for loss. He has even returned one interception for a touchdown against South Dakota State.
Needless to say, Illinois will need to watch out for Gregory. He will put pressure on Scheelhaase and make life a little more difficult for the Illini offense. At 6'6" and 255 pounds, Gregory will be fighting for the Husker defense on Saturday.
Scheelhaase and crew better be ready.
For a full depth chart, click here.
Players to Watch from Illinois
Nathan Scheelhaase (Sr, QB)
Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is leading the way for the Illinois Fighting Illini. By doing so, Scheelhaase already has more touchdowns in 2013 than he did in all of 2012.
With seven touchdowns compared to last season's four, Scheelhaase has improved Illinois' 2012 woes. With Scheelhaase in the driver's seat, the Illini have already gained more than 500 yards this season. The team has also scored 45 points in a game for the first time since 2011.
The previous season is now in the past. Scheelhaase is helping the Illini average 37 points per game. That's a far cry from the 16 points per game Illinois averaged last season. Needless to say, Scheelhaase is now working a pretty efficient offense. The Nebraska defense will have to put pressure on the senior, otherwise he'll continue to rack up the points much as he has all season.
Josh Ferguson (Soph., RB)
Josh Ferguson is someone the Nebraska defense needs to pay attention to. Why, exactly?
Currently, Ferguson is leading the Big Ten at 21.8 yards per catch. Considering he is a running back, that's a pretty amazing number. It's also pretty rare for a tailback like Ferguson to be leading a conference in yards per reception.
Beyond the Big Ten, Ferguson is also leading the nation in receiving yards by a running back. Needless to say, he's pretty outstanding. Whether he's running or making the big plays in the air, Ferguson is a threat for any opposing defense. The Husker defense will have to be on-point to keep up with Ferguson.
For a full depth chart, click here.
What Are They Saying?
Head Coach Bo Pelini
On senior quarterback Taylor Martinez starting against Illinois:
It is still to be determined a little bit. Like I said, I think he’s getting closer to being 100 percent. As of yesterday, he wasn’t quite 100 percent. I think he’s getting better, and we’ll have to see as the week progresses.
On his confidence in Ron Kellogg III and Tommy Armstrong:
I felt confident going into the last one and I feel no different now. I feel even better now than I did before and that was pretty good. I have a lot of confidence in those guys. I think they are both good players. I know we’ll play well around them, too. (We’ll do) whatever gives us the best chance to win the football game. We’ll have somebody who is physically and mentally ready to roll at that position.
On where Nebraska is in the Big Ten race:
I’m not worried about that. I’m not worried about the rest of the Big Ten. I’m worried about us. I’m worried about us moving forward and getting better each and every day. I feel good about our football team. I do. I don’t watch a lot of football when I’m at home. But you look across the country and I think it’s pretty close. There’s a lot of parity out there. I think we can compete with anybody. I think we can beat any football team that we line up against. I also understand that there are a lot of football teams out there that can beat up on us if we don’t take care of us. That means we have to keep working to get better. I think our guys are hungry. I think our guys understand the need to grow and to get better. As long as we approach every day with the right attitude, that gives us the best chance to play well.
On defending Illinois:
They are balanced. They can run it, they can throw it. They mix up their personnel a little bit. I think it’s a well-coached offense. They do what they do and they do it well. I think their quarterback has a good handle on what (Offensive Coordinator Bill) Cubit is trying to do offensively. I think they have a good level of execution.
On Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase:
I think he’s a good player. I think he plays within their offense. I think he understands where to go with the football and throwing game. Obviously he’s capable of hurting you with his feet. He’s a good football player. He can do a lot of different things well.
Senior Wide Receiver Quincy Enunwa
On which quarterback has the stronger arm:
I think Tommy (Armstrong Jr.) throws the furthest and Ron (Kellogg III) throws the hardest.
On Big Ten play:
I’m pretty excited. Non-conference play is always fun, but getting into the meat of your schedule and playing the teams that will determine whether or not you go to the Big Ten Championship is always fun.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are courtesy of Nebraska's weekly press conference, via Huskers.com.
Nebraska is still up-in-the-air on who will be the quarterback come Saturday. Regardless of who starts, it's starting to appear that the Huskers and Illini could find themselves in a bit of a shootout.
Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is on a roll this season. Having already surpassed 2012's win total, Illinois is ready to put up a fight against Nebraska.
However, fans haven't forgotten the 0-8 conference play record from last year. That extended the Illini's Big Ten losing streak to 14 games. According to the Chicago Tribune, the last time Illinois won a conference game was October 8, 2011, versus Indiana.
It's time to look forward for Illinois. Nebraska is looking forward too.
Both teams have a lot riding on this game. For Illinois, it's winning that first conference game since 2011. For Nebraska, it's that step closer to returning to the Big Ten Championship game.
There is a lot of uncertainty for Nebraska, but will it be enough for Illinois to walk out of Memorial Stadium victorious? Nebraska will pull off the win at home but not without a good fight from the Illini.
Prediction: Nebraska 38, Illinois 31
For complete team coverage and everything Huskers, you can follow Erin on Twitter at @erinsorensen.