Opponent Preview: Illinois
Lincoln - Nebraska opens its Big Ten Conference season on Saturday against Illinois, and Huskers.com prepares you for the conference season by taking a closer look at the Fighting Illini.
Illinois brings a 3-1 record into Saturday's matchup. Like Nebraska, the Fighting Illini's lone loss this season came at the hands of a ranked Pac-12 squad, as No. 15 Washington defeated Illinois, 34-24, on Sept. 14.
The Illini boast one of the Big Ten's best offenses, led by senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Nebraska Head Coach Bo Pelini said he has been impressed by what he's seen from Illinois' offense.
"They are balanced. They can run it, they can throw it," Pelini said. "They mix up their personnel a little bit. I think it’s a well-coached offense. They do what they do and they do it well. I think their quarterback has a good handle on what (Offensive Coordinator Bill) Cubit is trying to do offensively. I think they have a good level of execution.”
Illinois enters Saturday’s Big Ten Conference opener looking to snap a 14-game conference losing streak dating back to 2011. While the Fighting Illini have struggled in Big Ten play the past two seasons, they have opened the 2013 season with a 3-1 record, showing marked improvement in Tim Beckman’s second season following a 2-10 campaign in 2012.
The Illini opened the season with an eight-point win over FCS foe Southern Illinois, before an impressive 45-17 rout of Cincinnati. Illinois suffered its lone loss of the season in a 10-point defeat at the hands of No. 19 Washington on Sept. 14. Illinois was off the following weekend before bouncing back with a 50-14 victory over Miami (Ohio) last Saturday.
Illinois’ strength is its offense, led by quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. The Illini are averaging 40.2 points per game and 478.5 yards of total offense. Scheelhaase is completing 67 percent of his passes while averaging nearly 300 passing yards per contest. He has thrown 12 touchdowns and been intercepted just three times. On the ground, Illinois is averaging 171.0 rushing yards per game, led by Donovonn Young’s 208 yards this season.
While the passing game is the strength of the Fighting Illini offense, Illinois’ pass defense has struggled, although it allowed only 95 passing yards last week while limiting Miami (Ohio) to only 250 total yards, nearly half of the Illini’s season average entering the game. Illinois ranks 97th nationally by allowing 271.5 passing yards per game. Opposing quarterbacks are completing better than 63 percent of their passes and have been picked off only once in 133 attempts. Opponents are also averaging 4.3 yards per rush against Illinois, as the Fighting Illini rank 92nd nationally in total defense, allowing 432.0 yards per game. Despite those numbers, the Illini have done well limiting points, thanks in part to keeping the opponent out of the end zone in seven of the opponent’s 16 trips inside the red zone.
Nebraska and Illinois are meeting for the first time as members of the Big Ten Conference, as the teams did not play in 2011 or 2012. The Huskers lead the all-time series with the Fighting Illini, 7-2-1. The teams have met only twice in the last 60 years, with Nebraska earning a 59-14 win in Champaign in 1986, and the Huskers claiming a 52-25 victory in the most recent meeting in Lincoln in 1985.
The teams will meet at Memorial Stadium for only the third time. In the first meeting, Illinois earned a 9-6 victory in 1924. NU avenged that loss with a 14-0 victory over Red Grange and the Illini the next season, marking the only time in Grange’s career that he was held scoreless in a home game.
Illinois Head Coach Tim Beckman
Tim Beckman is in his second season at Illinois, where he owns a 5-11 record. The Fighting Illini are 3-1 this fall and have already eclipsed last year’s win total from a 2-10 campaign. Illinois went 0-8 in Big Ten Conference play in Beckman’s first season, and the Fighting Illini have lost 14 consecutive conference games dating back to 2011.
Prior to coming to Illinois, Beckman spent three seasons as the head coach at Toledo from 2009 to 2011. Beckman posted a 21-16 record at Toledo, including eight wins in each of his final two seasons. Before becoming a head coach, Beckman served as Oklahoma State’s defensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008, after coaching cornerbacks at Ohio State in 2005 and 2006. Previously, Beckman spent time on the defensive staffs at Bowling Green (1998 to 2004), Elon (1996 to 1997) and Western Carolina (1990 to 1995). He earned his first collegiate coaching stint as a graduate assistant at Auburn in 1988 and 1989.