A surprisingly familiar clash of 2-1 teams takes place this Saturday. The Nebraska Cornhuskers and Illinois Fighting Illini have kicked off their Big Ten slates on four occasions since the two programs first met as conference foes in 2013. The Huskers hold an overall 12-3-1 series advantage.
Both squads come into the game with top-20 rushing defenses. Nebraska has given up only 10 running plays of 10-plus yards, while the Illini have yet to yield a touchdown on the ground in any first half during 2019.
Lovie Smith enters a crucial fourth year as Illinois’ head coach. He’s won no more than four games in a season during his tenure, and his teams have finished better than dead last in the Big Ten West only once. Despite Nebraska not being its old self, a victory over Scott Frost would show improvement and give Smith some breathing room, however brief.
Nebraska at Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 21 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Nebraska -13
When Nebraska Has the Ball
A laundry list of Illini defensive players missed last week's loss to Eastern Michigan. Suspensions, rule violations and injuries decimated an Illinois team that needs as much help on defense as it can muster against the Huskers.
While Nebraska didn’t look flawless against Northern Illinois, there were moments when the Huskers shined brighter than they have all year.
Adrian Martinez led the offense on a scoring drive with 40 seconds left in the first half, while running back Dedrick Mills broke out and logged the first 100-yard game NIU had allowed in 18 contests. Maurice Washington again showed the speed that has become his trademark, and the offensive line even flashed true cohesiveness.
For Illinois to slow Nebraska down to a halt, the Illini need to get into Martinez’s head. He’s locked onto first reads repeatedly this year, which means blanketing receiver JD Spielman is a must.
However, Martinez may be building a rapport with a secondary target in Kanawai Noa. The two hooked up for the touchdown on that aforementioned quick first-half drive. Tight end Jack Stoll has also been fingertips away from assisting with huge chunk plays.
The Illini’s gameplan no doubt prominently features USC transfer Oluwole Betiku. The defensive end has been a terror, and considering Nebraska’s struggles up front, he could have a banner day.
When Illinois Has the Ball
Running back Reggie Corbin is the star of the show, and Illinois needs him to be at or near 100 percent if it wants to score an upset. He missed the team’s game versus Connecticut due to injury, and backup Mike Epstein went down for the season in the team’s win over Akron. Corbin was able to regain his starting spot before tallying 144 yards and a touchdown versus Eastern Michigan. The Illini still fell short 34-31.
Michigan transfer quarterback Brandon Peters has been playing well enough to put up decent numbers so far. While the Nebraska secondary has shown holes to exploit, those were fewer and farther between versus Northern Illinois.
The Blackshirts’ front three have been a nightmare to traverse. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander likely feels comfortable daring Peters to throw while selling out to stop Corbin.
If Corbin finds himself in Nebraska’s second level, he should be able to gash the Huskers repeatedly. If not, Peters must force Mohamed Barry and company to chase after receivers Josh Imatorbhebhe, Ricky Smalling, and Trevon Sidney.
The strength of schedule roughly evens out with the Fighting Illini having faced Akron, Connecticut, and Eastern Michigan while Nebraska brawled with South Alabama, Colorado, and Northern Illinois.
While this is a Big Ten conference game, Illinois is probably the worst opponent the Huskers will see for the rest of the year. Much like last week, Nebraska again has an opportunity to make a statement. Illinois simply needs wins regardless of who they play.
If the Huskers can stuff Corbin and the Illini offense, it bodes well for their Big Ten slate. If they can’t, they still likely win, but they may take a hit mentally before perhaps their biggest challenge of the season in Ohio State.