Coming into this weekend’s game against the Illinois Fighting Illini, the Nebraska Cornhuskers certainly had some things to work on. The off week following the victory against South Dakota State should have at least given them time to make some adjustments.
But what adjustments were made (if any) has yet to be seen. Nebraska is 3-1 on the season, and so too is Illinois, with its only loss coming at the hands of a ranked Washington team by a score of 34-24. The Illini have surprised basically everyone thus far in the season, especially since they were winless in conference last season and were arguably one of the worst teams in the country. Leading up to the season, most people didn’t think Illinois would have as many wins as they do now, let alone be able to contend with Nebraska.
However, with a much-improved quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase, who has already tossed 12 touchdowns this season, and an offense capable of scoring a lot of points, the Fighting Illini look poised to give the Huskers a challenge to open up Big Ten play.
For the Huskers seriously struggling defense, the last thing you want is a four-year starter who just seems to be hitting his stride and is throwing more efficiently than he ever has before. It doesn’t help that the Huskers’ secondary, which was supposed to be the strength of the defense, currently ranks 105th nationally in passing yards allowed per game. Instead of only worrying about stopping the run, Bo Pelini and his coaching staff must now give much more attention figuring out how to stop opposing offenses from lighting them up through the air, as UCLA and even Wyoming have done so far.
Another aspect of the game that could prove worrisome for the Huskers is that quarterback Taylor Martinez will miss his second straight game because of a turf-toe injury he suffered against UCLA. Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. will get the start in his absence, and it’s likely he’ll share at least a portion of the snaps with senior Ron Kellogg III. While the pair played very well last week, going a combined 20-of-24 with a combined 305 yards and two touchdowns, they both are inexperienced. Additionally, they played South Dakota State, and although Illinois is no marquee program, there is a big difference between an FCS opponent and one from the B1G.
I don’t think Armstrong, and/or Kellogg, will struggle much, if at all, against the Illini, but experience surely helps in these types of situations, as we’ve all learned from the Husker defense this season.
In the end, I think Nebraska hands Illinois its 15th straight conference loss, but it definitely won’t be easy. The final score of the game will probably look more like the score to a basketball game than a football game, but I think Nebraska’s offense will be able to outscore Illinois because while everyone knows how bad the Huskers are on defense, people forget to mention that Illinois isn’t too great either.
Prediction: Nebraska 42, Illinois 28