Coming off of their first wins of the season, Fighting Illini and Cornhuskers renew acquaintances in Lincoln
All things considered, both the Illinois Fighting Illini and Nebraska Cornhuskers should be feeling confident heading into Saturday's tilt. Both teams chalked up their first win with quarterbacks who started for the first time and are ready to build towards better things as the season continues.
The Huskers and Illini have been meeting on the gridiron since 1892 when a plucky bunch of Bugeaters upended their foe 6-0. As an aside, this did not end well, as Illinois' George Huff apparently punched the Big Red's Albin Jones in the face once all was said and done before ducking into the crowd.
Initial bad blood aside, Nebraska leads the overall series 13-3-1 with a 6-1 mark in Big Ten play.
Will this be the year Lovie Smith finally chalks up a win over the Huskers, or will Scott Frost claim a second-straight win headed into the Big Red's blood feud come Black Friday?
Let's break it down.
Illinois at Nebraska
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 21 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Nebraska -15.5
When Illinois Has the Ball
Nebraska's defense had trouble stuffing Penn State quarterback Will Levis last weekend following Sean Clifford's benching. They now look to clamp down on Big Ten Freshman of the Week Isaiah Williams. Watch for the Illini to get creative with him along with running backs Mike Epstein and Chase Brown. Of course, this is assuming Brandon Peters doesn't regain the starting role after testing positive for COVID-19, and Lovie Smith isn't going to tip his hand there.
#illini Lovie Smith: Our starting QB has been out and he's back this week. That's a good option.— Jeremy Werner (@JWerner247) November 16, 2020
Not going to name a starting QB.
"We have some good options going into this week."
Whoever starts will face a secondary that's proven tough to score on having only allowed four touchdowns this year. Wide receivers Josh Imatorbhebhe and Brian Hightower continue to be key targets. Considering the success teams have had using their tight ends against Erik Chinander's schemes, look for Daniel Barker to get plenty of balls thrown his way.
The Blackshirts' front seven has seen mixed results, unable to find a consistent pass rush or stonewall rushing attacks with any frequency. The linebacker corps has been a pleasant surprise thanks to usual suspects Collin Miller and JoJo Domann. What wasn't expected was how well Luke Reimer and junior college transfer Pheldarius Payne have performed.
If the Illini are going to have success racking up points through the air, they'll have to navigate the regular lockdown play of Cam Taylor-Britt. The safety position does have some areas of concern, though. Deontai Williams has often been launching himself at opposing players and appears to be a targeting penalty waiting to happen. Redshirt freshman Myles Farmer is more than ready to take over if this can't be cleaned up.
When Nebraska Has the Ball
Luke McCaffrey is officially 1-0 under Scott Frost's watch. But a second-half that saw some curiously conservative play-calling left Husker fans wondering what more No. 7 is capable of. His passes have been wobbly at times but do reach their intended target, and he has ample skill players to work with. Wan'Dale Robinson leads that charge, while true freshmen Zavier Betts and Marcus Fleming have made their presence known, among others.
The Big Red does need someone who can reliably generate rushing yards aside from McCaffrey or Robinson, though. Through three games, Dedrick Mills has totaled 31 carries for 95 yards and two scores. Frost did note he suffered an injury against Penn State, which allowed Marvin Scott III a few opportunities. It's clear that as of now, Robinson is the Huskers' biggest threat on the ground aside from McCaffrey.
Nebraska's offensive line had all regular starters return after Cameron Jurgens had to take a seat versus Northwestern. Regardless, it collapsed far too often versus the Nittany Lions, giving McCaffrey little time to make proper passing calls. Combine all that with curious tempo choices, and kinks continue to require addressing.
Fortunately for them, Illinois provides a defense that the Huskers may be able to gain some confidence against. This is a team that gives up 189.5 yards rushing and 271.8 passing per contest in addition to surrendering 34.3 points on average. Linebacker Jake Hansen does provide a savvy challenge at linebacker along with a secondary that includes Nate Hobbs and Devon Witherspoon.
Smith's defense must put Nebraska's starters up front on roller skates as Penn State did and keep McCaffrey in check on the ground. If they do this, they have a legitimate opportunity to win. But it's going to take a few additional breaks as well.
Having been outscored 69-6 in the second half through three games this season, it's crucial for Nebraska to go for the jugular early and often. McCaffrey isn't quite ready to throw the long ball on a regular basis, and that's fine. But Frost has the tools to help him generate chunk plays even if it has to be done via yards after the catch.
Illinois will obviously work to drastically reduce his efficiency on the ground, which may result in Nebraska going with fewer designed runs. The Illini would be wise to force the Huskers to beat them through the air, as they've yet to prove they can do so consistently. The Big Red may capitalize early, but their inability to adjust offensively in the second half while the opposition does is cause for concern.
That said, although Nebraska has struggled with both offensive consistency and discipline on both sides, Illinois has been equally sloppy, if not more so. Averaging 73.8 penalty yards per game this season, they were able to shore things up last week with just 40 penalty yards in a comeback win over Rutgers.
There's no such thing as an easy win left on the Huskers' schedule. But this one ends up being strategically placed. It offers the Huskers a chance to play a complete 60 minutes of football heading into the back end of their schedule.
If that's accomplished, they should be able to notch a second-straight win and continue building momentum headed into their rivalry game against Iowa. If not, Illinois is capable of doing what Penn State wasn't and sneak out the win. However, now that McCaffrey has first-start jitters out of the way, it's time to take that second-game step forward.
Prediction: Nebraska 30, Illinois 20
Podcast: Week 12 Preview and Predictions
(Top photo courtesy of Nebraska Athletics)