There are plenty of storylines in this year’s game between the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Illinois Fighting Illini. Nebraska will be breaking out their alternate uniforms to celebrate Memorial Stadium itself, Illinois has a chance at getting to .500 on the year and the two-win home team is favored to win by more than two touchdowns.
The series began in 1892, a 6-0 Husker victory in Lincoln. Nebraska owns a 11-3-1 series lead with the most recent loss to Illinois being a 14-13 heartbreaker in Champaign during Mike Riley’s first season as head coach. While the numbers suggest the Huskers are far better than their record, it appears Lovie Smith may be hitting his stride as the Illini’s head man. Since taking over, he has a 9-24 record, but has already bested his win totals from the past two years.
After the Huskers gave Ohio State a scare in Columbus last week — a loss that has left an especially bitter taste in their mouths — and the Illini dunked on Minnesota to the tune of 55-31, questions abound both locally and nationally. Is Nebraska truly the nasty team Urban Meyer says the Huskers are? Can Illinois duplicate its offensive efforts against a defense that has been shaky at times?
Let’s look at the tale of the tape:
Illinois at Nebraska
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 10 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Nebraska -17
Three Things to Watch
1. Illinois QB AJ Bush and RB Reggie Corbin vs. the Blackshirts
It’s a homecoming of sorts for Bush, who was once buried on Nebraska’s quarterback depth chart. After a stint at Iowa Western Community College, he spent a season at Virginia Tech before taking over for the Illini. No doubt the dual-threat signal-caller wants to show the home crowd what they potentially missed out on.
Bush hasn’t been especially effective through the air this season as he’s completed 56.8 percent of his passes for 924 yards while throwing five touchdowns and five interceptions. He does provide an effective rushing option as he’s second only to Corbin 472 yards and five touchdowns.
With a rush defense ranked 81st in the nation, Nebraska has been shown to be vulnerable to a good running game thanks to the likes of Michigan’s Karan Higdon, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor and most recently Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins. Keeping Bush confined to the pocket and locking Corbin down early will drastically reduce Illinois’ chances of making this game remotely close. However, if they get loose, we’ll definitely have a shootout on our hands.
2. Nebraska CB Lamar Jackson’s continued improvement
Since getting benched and eventually earning his job back, Jackson’s performances continue to trend upward game after game. Last week versus Ohio State, he again played extremely physical defense. He would eventually help the Huskers force and recover a fumble and he also intercepted a Dwayne Haskins pass in the end zone.
It appears he’s finally the solid cornerback complement opposite Dicaprio Bootle. He won’t see much in the way of significant competition from opposing receivers this week. Ricky Smalling, Trenard Davis, Dominic Stampley and Sam Mays are Illinois' biggest threats with a combined 960 yards on the season. Jackson may again feast and continue to prove his mettle.
3. Nebraska’s special teams
If there’s one way the Illini could say in the game, it might be thanks to the Huskers’ special teams units which have disappointed lately. We saw Ohio State block a punt, a botched onside kick that went viral, and punter Isaac Armstrong’s poorest performance yet with seven boots that went an average of 38.6 yards.
Nebraska must find a way to solidify the punting unit and Armstrong absolutely has to get his groove back lest the Big Red allow Illinois gain momentum. If the visiting team does, we may see something similar to what the Huskers dealt with earlier this year: finding creative ways to lose.
On the other hand, if Armstrong returns to form and proves his work against Ohio State was a hiccup, he could essentially help his team add more points on the board by proxy.
While AJ Bush and the Illinois offense will get some yardage, this game ultimately comes down to Nebraska’s offense versus the Illini defense. That’s not the best news for a visiting team that gives up 525 yards and 37 points on average.
It’s very likely that quarterback Adrian Martinez has another banner day while running back Devine Ozigbo batters and bruises defenders and the dynamic wide receiver duo of Stanley Morgan Jr. and JD Spielman causes the Illinois defensive back seven to scramble.
Look for Nebraska to come out firing on all cylinders going into the first half. Illinois then likely does its best to throw the kitchen sink, piping, copper wiring and anything else they can at the Huskers in the third quarter. In the end, Nebraska can easily win a track meet if this turns into one.
Prediction: Nebraska 52, Illinois 27
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces).