This game features two teams at a crossroads. Illinois (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten) is arguably the hardest hitter of the conference's West division and is ready to send a message. Meanwhile, a real chance exists for Nebraska (3-4, 2-2) to begin a five-game skid.
Bret Bielema claimed his first win as the Illini's head coach against the Big Red, a 30-22 affair in last year's Aer Lingus College Football Classic. His team is fundamentally sound with an intimidatingly stout defense, not unlike several Wisconsin teams he fielded.
Coming off a second bye week, Nebraska's in for a long road as it finishes out the regular season. Despite limited depth across the board and injuries cropping up, the team plays with Ted Lasso-led AFC Richmond fortitude under interim head coach Mickey Joseph. With a home crowd behind them, the Huskers look to play spoiler.
No. 17 Illinois at Nebraska
|National Rank Category||Illinois||Nebraska|
199 YPG (26th)
154.38 YPG (68th)
216.9 YPG (94th)
269.4 YPG (38th)
26 PPG (T-85th)
29.7 PPG (66th)
77.86 YPG (2nd)
143.3 YPG (2nd)
8.9 PPG (1st)
3rd Down Conversions
Red Zone Conversions
When Illinois Has the Ball
The Illini haven't been blowing up scoreboards, but with a top-tier defense, they can afford not to. Still, senior quarterback Tommy DeVito has been exceptionally accurate, hitting better than 70 percent of his passes for 1,415 yards and throwing 10 touchdowns with only two interceptions. Also note that neither of those picks was tossed during his past four games.
Illinois should make plenty of hay on the ground courtesy of Chase Brown, who leads the nation in rushing yardage (1,059) and has four touchdowns to his name. Backup Reggie Love III is listed as questionable, but considering how easy it's been to push the Huskers' defensive front around, who totes the rock may not be an issue.
This Illini receiving corps offers solid options in Pat Bryant, Isaiah Williams, and Brian Hightower, along with tight end Michael Marchese. The aforementioned Brown is also a catch-and-run threat. His three-reception game versus Minnesota resulting in 51 yards and a score added an exclamation point to an already fantastic performance.
Should the Huskers' defensive front continue to struggle in the middle, edge rushers Garrett Nelson, Ochaun Mathis, and Caleb Tannor must trip up the Illini effort with consistency.
The Big Red's linebacker corps is now without Nick Henrich for the rest of the year, painting an even larger bullseye on the back of leading defender Luke Reimer. Chris Kolarevic likely sees a notable snap count increase as a result.
While occasionally opportunistic, defensive backs Marques Buford Jr., Malcolm Hartzog, and Brandon Moore are still finding new footing after the departure of former defensive coordinator Erik Chinander.
Hartzog will no doubt continue to get picked on due to his size (officially listed at 5-9, 165) and true freshman status. The biggest liability continues to be Quinton Newsome. With awkward tackle attempts and causing yellow hankies to fly, he needed a bye-week reset. If it did no good, seeing him quickly yanked wouldn't be a surprise.
When Nebraska Has the Ball
A porous offensive line limits offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. More bad news came earlier this week as Joseph reported that starting right guard Broc Bando is currently rehabbing, opening the door for backup Henry Lutovsky.
Quarterback Casey Thompson has his moments but still struggles with pocket presence only made more difficult with blockers who've given up 20 sacks seven games in.
Joseph emphasized the need for Nebraska to establish its running game, which requires a Herculean effort against the Illini front. It's not an impossible feat, though. Minnesota picked up 142 yards on 24 carries scoring twice, but the Gophers did so with a top-15 rushing offense.
Anthony Grant has proven himself at the running back spot, though he shifts side-to-side after the handoff more often than preferred. Expect a healthy dose of Grant, Jaquez Yant, and Rahmir Johnson with Gabe Ervin Jr. still on the shelf.
Whipple can afford to be creative with a receiver Joseph called the fastest he's ever coached.
The Trey Palmer Show lit up Ross-Ade Stadium in a hard-fought loss to Purdue. But it's vital Thompson find someone to take the pressure off. This matchup provides a perfect opportunity to go tight end-heavy with the likes of Travis Vokolek.
All Nebraska has to do is get past a defense ranked no worse than second nationally in preventing rushing, passing, and scoring.
The Illini defensive line boasts two elite sack specialists in team tackle leader Jer'Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph Jr., both with four to their name. Linebackers Isaac Darkangelo (30 tackles, 13 solo, 2.5 TFL) and Tarique Barnes (17, 12, 5) hold down the second level.
All this is in addition to a secondary featuring ballhawks across the board with 12 interceptions. Only Wisconsin claims more (14).
Nebraska's biggest challenge isn't going blow-for-blow with this bruising defense. It's tiring them out. Indiana was the lone team to convert over 30 percent of their third down attempts against Illinois. They'd win a 23-20 squeaker giving the Illini their only blemish.
The Huskers average 28:39 in time of possession. Far from ideal with a mark that ties for 96th in college football. They'll need a steady diet of double-digit play drives if they want to send the Sea of Red home happy.
In the end, Joseph's bunch remains plucky, but Bielema's brutes chalk up another win.
Prediction: Illinois 38, Nebraska 27
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