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Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini Preview and Prediction

Freedom Akinmoladun

Freedom Akinmoladun

With a 2-2 non-conference effort in their wake, the Nebraska Cornhuskers begin their journey towards what will hopefully be the regular season goal: winning the Big Ten West division. First up is a pack of Illinithat feature a quarterback that’ll test their mettle and the Blackshirt pass rush at the same time.

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Nebraska at Illinois

Kickoff: 4:02 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Network: Big Ten Network
Spread: Nebraska -6.5

Three Things to Watch For

1. The Return of De’Mornay Pierson-El

DPE has been leaking tweets all week regarding a return and has been practicing sparingly. While it’s unlikely we’ll be seeing Pierson-El in his usual role of “the guy that does everything,” look for some decoy work, the occasional fly sweep and perhaps a few receptions.

Related: Nebraska’s De’Mornay Pierson-El Priming "Million Dollar Moves" for Return

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2. Wes Lunt vs. the Nebraska Secondary

If the return of No. 15 isn’t a big story for Husker fans, this is 1B. Nebraska has the worst pass defense in all of FBS. No seriously, I checked, out of 128 teams. Lunt is an Oklahoma State transfer that’s no stranger to flinging the pigskin around and has a major target in wide receiver Geronimo Allison (great name, no?).

Don’t expect Nebraska to turn into a Legion of Boom overnight, but Lunt is excellent practice for other quarterbacks the Big Red will face down the line.

3. The Work of Freedom Akinmoladun

The converted tight end earned himself a Blackshirt and has become a blessing for both defensive line coach Hank Hughes and the defense as a whole. His pass-rushing ability is something Nebraska has been sorely lacking. He can also be moved around with other ends to provide both rest and different looks against the Illinois offense.

Final Analysis

Illinois is going to get yardage through the air. I think we can all agree on that. One thing Nebraska has going for it is that it currently has the No. 7 rushing defense in the country and it’ll be hard for the Illini to make a dent in that mark.

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I see Nebraska winning, but how they do so depends on the same things that determined the outcome of its last game against Southern Mississippi. Third-down conversion rate, red-zone defense and turnover margin will play the biggest roles.

If the Huskers start converting third and shorts, this could be a pretty convincing win. If not, things may get dicey down until the end again.

Prediction: Nebraska 45, Illinois 27

— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow Brandon on Twitter @eightlaces and Periscope (eightlaces), and like his Facebook page.