1. Nebraska finally ended its rocky marriage with the combustible Bo Pelini and hired nice guy Mike Riley. How has Riley been accepted in Lincoln and have two heartbreaking losses ended the honeymoon early?
I think most fans knew there would be an adjustment period, with both sides of the ball transitioning to a new scheme. Was 2-2 expected – I don’t know? But it has given the naysayers of Mike Riley’s hire ammunition. I think for the most part though, fans were ready for something different other than Bo Pelini. My expectations are high for Riley. I think he will have success, if people are patient enough with him. Recruiting seems to be on the uptick, but for his system to work, he will have to have his own guys. When you look at this defense, they could have some success against some of the stronger teams in the Big Ten West. If this team can find a way to make it to Indy, no one will remember the two non-conference losses.
2. Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. is putting up big and more efficient numbers. With no more Ameer Abdullah, how has Armstrong and this offense changed? Other than Armstrong, who have emerged as the top playmakers?
Nebraska is trying to blend the spread, which they did under Tim Beck the last few seasons, with the traditional Riley pro-style offense. So far it’s been pretty effective, although I worry about cold spells with this offense. They have yet to put four quarters together. Armstrong is definitely throwing more and running less at this point, although it feels like he’s running more and more each game as he gets comfortable of when to take off. The biggest playmaker to this point has been Jordan Westerkamp, a wide receiver Illinois offered from inside their state. The return of De’Mornay Pierson-El in the very near future could really push this offense to another level if he’s 100 percent healthy.
3. Illinois has been hit hard by some key injuries. It sounds like Nebraska has suffered their spat of injuries as well, especially on defense an special teams. What's the latest on the injuries and how have they affected Nebraska?
Nebraska’s defense has been a who’s who at times, as they struggle to stay healthy, especially at the linebacker spot. Here is an injury report for Illinois.
· Starting LB Michael Rose (groin) out
· Starling LB Josh Banderas (groin) questionable
· Starting DT Vincent Valentine (ankle) questionable
· Starting DE Jack Gangwish (elbow) questionable
· Reserve LB Marcus Newby (groin) questionable (Rose’s backup)
· WR De’Mornay Pierson-El (foot) questionable
· DT Kevin Williams (thumb) questionable (Valentine’s backup)
The injuries have really hampered this team’s ability to get a pass rush up front and made it hard to build any chemistry in a new scheme under defensive coordinator Mark Banker.
4. This is not our fathers' Nebraska defense. The Blackshirts are struggling, ranking last in the Big Ten in pass defense. What have been the issues on defense and how worried are they about Wes Lunt and this Illinois offense?
If they aren’t worried about Wes Lunt, they should be. But I do think the Nebraska players and coaches have been very complimentary to what he can bring in the passing game. As far as what is wrong, everyone is searching for answers. Is it a scheme issue? Is it a talent issue? Is it a lack of pass rush? The corners are definitely more on an island now compared to Pelini’s system, who used more safety and linebacker help.
5. Illinois has lost the last two Big Ten openers to Nebraska, both in Lincoln, by a combined score of 84-33. What are the keys for the Cornhuskers to win this game on the road, and what is your prediction (score, please)?
I think Nebraska’s offense needs to put together four complete quarters. On defense, if they can figure out how to just create a turnover or two, I think they can outscore this team weapons wise. I look for the Nebraska defense to put a lot of attention on Josh Ferguson. I’m thinking it’s a close game going into the fourth quarter. Nebraska wins 38-28.