Nebraska and Illinois have gone in two drastically different directions since last year’s meeting.
The Illini have notched just two victories since that afternoon in Champaign, Ill., last October when Illinois upset Nebraska 14-13.
Meanwhile, Nebraska hit rock bottom a few weeks later in its 55-45 loss at Purdue, and the Huskers have since turned around the program and now sit at No. 15 in the AP Top 25.
Nebraska is 7-1 in its last eight games. Illinois is 2-6.
The Huskers will enter Saturday’s game with four wins and could match their win total from the regular season last year in the first five weeks. Illinois, on the other hand, comes into Lincoln fresh off of a bye week after two straight weeks of blowout losses.
These are two completely different teams from a year ago, and completely different circumstances. But that doesn’t change the fact that for Nebraska, last year’s game still resonates. And Saturday is a revenge game in almost every way.
Here’s how the two teams match up:
When Nebraska has the ball
Lovie Smith is the new head coach at Illinois, but this is not a Lovie Smith defense.
In its last two games, Illinois gave up 34 points to Western Michigan and 48 to North Carolina, including 265 passing yards against the Tar Heels and 287 rushing yards to Western Michigan.
So though Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said Wednesday the Illinois defensive front is “scary,” it’s clearly not that scary.
Nebraska will likely kick the offense into rushing mode and pound the ball with sophomore Devine Ozigbo and senior Terrell Newby, and a healthy dose of quarterback runs with Tommy Armstrong.
So far this season, that’s been a winning combination. Ozigbo and Armstrong are nearly tied in rushing yards, 283 for Ozigbo and 281 for Armstrong. Newby, with half as many carries, leads both of them in yards per carry.
Those numbers should bump up after Saturday’s game with a lackluster Illinois defense coming to town.
When Illinois has the ball
It will be strength against strength on Saturday, with gunslinger Illinois QB Wes Lunt coming to town against an improved Huskers secondary.
Lunt is sixth in the Big Ten in passing yards this season, right behind Armstrong. Lunt is 61-for-98 for 655 yards and 5 touchdowns this season. In last year’s game, Lunt threw 45 times for 251 yards in the 14-13 win over Nebraska.
Illinois ran just 15 times against Western Michigan, so don’t expect the Illini to switch it up against a pretty good Huskers run defense. Lunt will challenge Nebraska through the air, but against a better pass defense.
The Nebraska secondary has been the strong point of the Blackshirts this year, with corners Josh Kalu and Chris Jones growing up on the outside and safeties Aaron Williams, Kieron Williams and Nate Gerry each with two interceptions. Twice this season, Nebraska has kept opposing quarterbacks to under 175 yards passing.
Illinois will live or die by Lunt’s arm. He will likely get lots of yards, but points will be hard to come by.
Four weeks into the season and there still isn’t a convincing argument that Nebraska’s special teams are anything special.
Tre Bryant and Jordan Nelson are doing all right on kickoff returns, De’Mornay Pierson-El has one good punt return, and freshman punter Caleb Lightbourn is still easing his way into the position.
Illinois special teams won’t be a huge factor in this game. The Illini are second to last in punt return yards and third to last in kickoff return yards.
But Nebraska’s special teams remain the biggest question mark for the Huskers, so it’s hard to say they’ll have an advantage on Saturday.
Nebraska coach Mike Riley has his team rolling right now.
The offense can run effectively when it needs to and pass when it needs to, which makes it hard for teams to game plan. The defense has been more than good enough in every game, and is cutting down on allowing big plays, with only two against Northwestern last week.
The lapses from last year, like closing out games or losing games Nebraska should win, are all but gone.
Riley has pitched a perfect game all season. He’s been rolling the dice on fourth down and converting, feeding the hot hand on offense, be it Armstrong throwing or Ozigbo running, and being rewarded for it.
Lovie Smith is an accomplished coach, but he’s currently trying to rebuild one of the worst programs in the Big Ten. With a 1-2 start, it doesn’t seem to be going great.
There are teams in the bottom tier of the Big Ten that could give Nebraska a tough game or a close call. Illinois is not one of them.
Under a new coach, a new system and coming into Lincoln 1-2, Illinois is still trying to figure out what type of program it is, while the Huskers are figuring out exactly who they are as a team.
If Nebraska can get out to a fast start and score early, Illinois will not be able to catch up. Similar to Northwestern, the only way Illinois has a chance to knock off the Huskers for the second straight season is if Nebraska’s offense sputters and can’t get going until late. A close, messy game would give Illinois a great chance.
I don’t see that happening.
Chris Heady’s prediction: Nebraska 41, Illinois 14