Nebraska's 2016 "payback tour" begins Saturday in Lincoln
When Nebraska lost to Illinois in Champaign a year ago, it was the first definitive sign that the Cornhuskers were going to be in trouble the rest of the season. It was a game that Mike Riley's team had every opportunity to win, should not have been in danger of losing, yet lost anyway.
It defined Nebraska's season.
On Saturday, the Fighting Illini make their way to Lincoln for their first Big Ten game of the season. Waiting for them is a Husker squad firing on all cylinders with revenge on the mind. Lovie Smith has an uphill climb in turning Illinois into a formidable Power Five program. Saturday's matchup appears to be little more than a tool he can use to help measure just how far the Illini have to go.
Illinois at Nebraska
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct 1 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Nebraska -20.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Illinois slow down Nebraska's rushing attack?
If the Illini want to keep this game close and have a chance at the end, they'll need to be better against the run than they've been so far this season. They are ranked in the bottom half of the nation, allowing opponents 4.1 yards per carry. The rushing attacks they've seen so far all average fewer yards per attempt than Nebraska. Focusing on stopping the run must be at the top of Lovie Smith's preparations for this game. Otherwise, Nebraska should be able to literally march up and down the field all afternoon without attempting a single pass.
2. De'Mornay Pierson-El's Progression
Two seasons ago he was Nebraska's secret weapon. He's back returning punts for the Huskers, but has yet to look comfortable doing so and has only broken free once this season — eventually caught from behind by an Oregon defender. All signs point to him getting plenty of opportunity to return punts on Saturday. He needs to use these attempts to build his confidence and get back to being the difference-maker he was in 2014. The Huskers need him to be close to that level if they want to be realistic contenders for a conference title.
3. Can the Huskers limit the big play?
Nebraska has given up six scoring plays of 20 or more yards in its last three games. The Cornhuskers have been fortunate enough to be able to match those scores against lesser defenses thus far, however they'll need to get a handle on that going forward. Wes Lunt and the Illinois offense have several big-play threats — most notably wide receiver Malik Turner. Keep an eye on whether or not the Illini are able to hit on a home run or two. It probably won't be enough to beat the Huskers, but those vulnerabilities could spell big trouble for Nebraska moving forward.
The Huskers are one of the top three teams in the Big Ten West and probably the fifth- or sixth-best team in the conference. The gap between the top and bottom half of the conference is a sizable one and you'll see that on the field Saturday. Wes Lunt is the least mobile quarterback Nebraska has faced this season, so look for defensive coordinator Mark Banker to be sending guys after him from various spots all day long. The underrated Husker linebackers should be able to clean up any plays that try to make the edge and turn the corner, and Illinois is simply going to have a tough time moving the ball consistently in this one. On the other side of the ball, look for Nebraska to continue to showcase an extremely balanced offensive attack (972 passing yards vs. 968 rushing yards on the year) and work on improving its execution — especially inside the 10-yard line. The Husker receivers should be open all day, leading to Nebraska taking control early and getting the lower tiers of the depth chart plenty of experience in fourth quarter.
Prediction: Nebraska 41, Illinois 10
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.