Recon: Nebraska

The Illini head into a hostile Nebraska Memorial Stadium this Saturday to take on a Huskers team that features arguably one of the nation's premier running backs and an aggressive defense. We got the inside track from Big Red Report publisher Josh Harvey for what you need to know about the Huskers.

Ameer Abdullah has been nothing short of sensational this year. He had a big game against Illinois last year. Do you think he could surpass last year's performance in this weekend's game?

I wouldn’t count on it after he ran 35 times last week. This isn’t something Illinois fans want to hear, but Nebraska should win this game pretty easily. I think this will be the game that backup running back Imani Cross gets 10 plus carries, while Terrell Newby gets work. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Abdullah get 18 to 20 touches and run for 125 yards, but 225 yards would be a lot without busting off some major runs.

Nebraska has been a bit up and down this year with games like the escape against McNeese State and then a big win over a solid Miami team. Do you feel like Nebraska will find consistency or is this just how this team is?

Well I could actually make the argument that McNeese State is the second best opponent Nebraska has played this year – there is a reason why the Cowboys are ranked as high as they are in FCS. I think McNeese State would beat Florida Atlantic and Fresno State. However, it’s a game Nebraska should have won and won pretty easily. They admitted they didn’t take it serious enough. In their other three contests, I feel like the focus has been there. As long as they don’t struggle against Illinois this week, I won’t have a problem calling them consistent with one small slip this season.

Taylor Martinez was the big name the last few years, but it looks like Tommy Armstrong has progressed exceptionally well. How much has he grown and how much has that impacted the team?

Armstrong has grown a lot from his 7-1 campaign last season. He’s taking care of the football better for the most part and made his feet a weapon. He doesn’t have the breakaway speed that Martinez had, but he’s actually a better runner when it comes to the zone read option. I’m also not afraid that every time he takes a hit, he’s not getting back up.

Randy Gregory was a force in last year's matchup. He's been a bit dinged up this year, though. Is he full-go and if so, how do you see him impacting the game this year against an Illinois team that puts the ball in the air a lot?

Gregory is full go and I look for him to have a big game against Illinois. The biggest hurdle with his microscopic surgery earlier in the year was getting past the mental aspect of it. I think he did that against Miami. Teams are trying to get in his head and he’s constantly getting cut blocked, but his impact isn’t just being felt in the box score. He’s demanding offensive coordinators and quarterbacks to constantly know where he’s at on the field. It’s creating other opportunities for the front three.

Nebraska allowed 369 yards through the air last weekend against Miami. Is the pass defense not the strong suit of the defensive unit, or was that uncharacteristic of the defense?

Pretty uncharacteristic when looking at other games this season and the last two years. That said, I know close to 120 of it was in the fourth quarter when Nebraska was up 17 and really trying to keep the clock running. It wasn’t necessarily the same scheme as it was early in the game. Considering they kept running back Duke Johnson from not going off and allowing only 76 rushing yards, I think Pelini will take it.

All eyes of course will be on Abdullah, but what does Illinois have to do to slow down a guy like Jordan Westerkamp who makes all kinds of highlight-reel catches?

If I had an answer for that, I would probably be a defensive coordinator in college football. I think everyone is starting to see why he was one of the most heavily recruited players in the Midwest a couple years ago. His speed is okay. He’s not going to out-jump many defensive backs, but he’s just the perfect route-runner, which gets him a lot of separation at times. When defenses have to worry about Kenny Bell on the opposite side of the field and Abdullah’s catching the ball out of the backfield, it creates a lot of opportunities for him.

Which unit for Nebraska have you seen progress the most this season so far?

Definitely special teams. A lot has to do with true freshman punt returner Demornay Pierson-El, but the blocking has been a lot better. Pelini had his team focus a lot of attention on it this offseason, spring, and fall camp. It’s starting to pay off. Across the board, special teams has gotten better.

Will Bo Pelini have his cat with him?

Probably past his bed time.

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