Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Saturday's Match-up: Illinois at Nebraska

By Brian Rosenthal

Illinois (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten) at Nebraska (2-7, 1-5)

Saturday, 11 a.m., Memorial Stadium, Lincoln

TV: BTN (Brandon Gaudin, Glen Mason, Elise Menaker)

 

WHAT’S AT STAKE: Nebraska has won two straight home games as it returns to Memorial Stadium following a narrow 36-31 loss at No. 8 Ohio State – a performance that has players, coaches and fans encouraged for a strong finish to head coach Scott Frost’s first season. The Huskers can’t reach bowl eligibility status, so winning these final three games is their primary goal, and to send this senior class out on a winning streak and set a positive tone for the offseason. Illinois, meanwhile, is coming off a surprising blowout of Minnesota, 55-31, which puts the Illini back in bowl conversation. But with games remaining against Iowa and at Northwestern, Illinois probably views this game as a must-win, and its best chance of getting one of two needed victories to qualify for a bowl.

 

KEY STATISTIC: Illinois and Nebraska are the nation’s top two most-improved teams from last season in rushing the football. Illinois is averaging 143.8 more yards per game than it did in 2017, and Nebraska has improved by 109 rushing yards per game this season.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH: A member of Nebraska’s football team in 2014 and 2015, A.J Bush will take his first snap in Memorial Stadium as an Illinois quarterback. A fifth-year senior graduate transfer, who also played at Iowa Western and Virginia Tech, Bush has completed 29 of 44 passes for 432 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions over his last two games. He also ran for 127 yards and two touchdowns last week against Minnesota. … Junior running back Reggie Corbin is coming off a career-high 213 rushing yards, on 13 carries, against Minnesota. He needs 48 rushing yards to become Illinois’ first 1,000-yard rusher since 2010. … Bush will take his share of shots downfield, meaning Nebraska sophomore cornerback Dicaprio Bootle will have a chance to increase his team-leading number of pass breakups. Bootle has 15, and he needs two more breakups to tie the Nebraska single-season record. He leads the Big Ten in passes defended per game. … Senior running back Devine Ozigbo is averaging 7.3 yards per rush in Big Ten Conference play and will be running against an Illinois defense that’s allowing 5.7 yards per carry.

 

WHEN NEBRASKA HAS THE BALL: Scott Frost says he recognizes parts of an Illinois defense under head coach Lovie Smith, who coached at Tampa Bay when Frost played with the Buccaneers as a safety. While the Tampa 2 wasn’t designed for college quarterbacks running zone reads and such, Smith and his staff have made the necessary tweaks, Frost said, to adjust to the college game. Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson resigned after Illinois allowed 63 points in an Oct. 27 loss at Maryland, and Smith is now calling the defense. In his only game doing so, against Minnesota, the Illini showed more disguises and blitzed more often. Smith may do more of the same to try to throw freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez off-kilter, although Martinez has done an admirable job of staying consistent. He’s thrown for more than 250 yards in five straight games, and he’s leading an offense that is routinely compiling more than 450 total yards. Look for Nebraska to establish the running game early, with Ozigbo and freshman running back Maurice Washington. The Huskers are facing an Illinois defense that’s allowing 240 rushing yards per game, the worst such mark in the Big Ten, and No. 122 nationally. Illinois also ranks last in the Big Ten in total defense and scoring defense, and second-to-last in passing defense. However, the Illini have intercepted 13 passes, second most in the Big Ten. Cornerback Jartavius Martin and linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips each has three interceptions.

WHEN ILLINOIS HAS THE BALL: Nebraska’s defense needs to be aware of big plays. Illinois can be explosive, as it showed against Minnesota, when the Illini had three touchdown runs of more than 70 yards, and passing touchdowns of 67, 61 and 86 yards. For the season, Illinois has 13 runs of more than 40 yards, the most in the nation, as Illinois averages 249 rushing yards per game. Corbin ranks second nationally with 9 yards per carry, including 10 per carry in conference games, and Bush has three 100-yard rushing games. “They have some speed on offense,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. “(Corbin) is obviously a very dynamic back, a lot of cutback yardage. Their other running back has been almost as good, not quite as good. Bush can run it himself. So, a lot of triple option elements involved in that offense, and I think they are doing a really good job in their running game.” But with its defense suspect, and in facing a potent Nebraska offense, can Illinois sustain drives, run clock and keep its defense on the sideline as much as possible? It seems unlikely; Illinois ranks last in the Big Ten in time of possession.

 

NEBRASKA WINS IF ... the Huskers don’t get complacent after playing arguably one of their best games of the season at Ohio State, and face Illinois with the same focus and discipline that’s helped Nebraska improve of late. The defense must limit big plays and continue it penchant for turnovers. Offensively, another fast start would help, too. The Huskers have scored a touchdown on their opening drive in six straight games.

 

BY THE NUMBERS

32: Receiving yards Stanley Morgan Jr. needs to reach 2,500 for his career. He will be the second Husker to reach that milestone, and he needs just 12 yards to move into second place on the Nebraska career receiving yardage list.

 

8: Seniors on the Illinois roster, the fewest in the nation. They’re part of a mere 24 total upperclassmen, also the fewest in the nation.

 

450: Yards of offense, at least, the Huskers have produced in each of their last six games. That ties a school record for the longest such streak. Nebraska also topped 450 yards in six straight games in 1972, 1982, 1994 and 1995.

 
Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

 

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