Illini open Big Ten play against Nebraska, which hasn't lost to Illinois since 1924

Illini kick off Big Ten play against Huskers for third straight season, hope third time's a charm

Nebraska (2-2) at Illinois (3-1)

Time: 3 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 3

TV: BTN (Eric Collins (play-by-play), Chuck Long (analyst) and Johnny Kane (sideline)

Last week: Illinois defeated Middle Tennessee 27-25; Nebraska defeated Southern Miss 36-28

All-time series:  Nebraska leads the all-time series 2-9-1 and is 2-1-1 in Champaign.

Vegas betting line: Nebraska (-3.5); Over/under (57)

Illini depth chart

Injury Report: Tight end Tyler White returns from concussion

Know Your Enemy: Five questions with Josh Harvey, BigRedReport.com

Video: Illini's three biggest concerns entering B1G play

Recruiting visitors: Huge recruiting opportunity vs. Nebraska

Micheal Young: How to slow down the Huskers offense

Four-star impact: Ke'Shawn Vaughn making immediate impact

Video: Three Illini who stood out vs. MTSU

Cubit: No timeline for Dudek, Hardee to return

Upon Further Review: MTSU film shows cause for concern in passing, redzone offense

Big Ten Power Rankings: Illini fall to No. 11

Number-crunching

  • 2: Sacks allowed by the Illini first-string offensive line through four games.
  • 3: Blocked kicks by the Illini special teams this season, which ranks first in the FBS.
  • 7.0Tackles for loss by junior LEO Dawuane Smoot, which is tied for third most in the Big Ten.
  • 24: Three-and-out drives forced by the Illini defense this season, tied for fifth-most in the FBS.
  • 91: Years since Illinois last defeated Nebraska, a 9-6 win at Lincoln in 1924. The Illini are 0-5-1 in the six games since, tying the Huskers 21-21 in Champaign during the 1953 season.
  • 277: Rushing yards needed by Illini senior running back Josh Ferguson to pass Howard Griffith for 10th all time on the Illini career rushing yards list.
  • 300: Nebraska has passed for more than 300 yards in five straight games, tying a school record that dates back to 2007-2008.
  • 379.5: Passing yards allowed per game this season by Nebraska.
  • 396.5: Rushing yards per game the Huskers have averaged in their two wins over the Illini the last two seasons.

Cornhuskers to watch

1. Tommy Armstrong Jr., QB: The 6-foot-1, 220-pound junior has improved steadily as a passer (he leads the Big Ten in passing yards per game). Through four games, he is more accurate (from 53.3 percent last season to 58.9 percent this season) and more dangerous (three 300+ yard games so far this season, and 11 total passing touchdowns), though he still can be mistake-prone (three interceptions in a loss at Miami). While Armstrong (who ran for 705 yards and six touchdowns last season) is running at a lower rate than this season, first-year head coach Mike Riley has upped Armstrong's rushing total recently (18 total carries for 111 yards during the last two games).

2. Terrell Newby, RB: Nebraska fans probably take the 5-foot-10, 200-pound junior for granted because he's not Ameer Abdullah. While he doesn't have Abdullah's breakaway ability, Newby is doing just fine, rushing for 399 yards (on 5.7 yards per carry) and three touchdowns so far this season. Mikale Wilbon (a 5-foot-8, 190-pound redshirt freshman) and Imani Cross (a 6-foot-1, 240 pound senior) give different looks, but Newby is the bell-cow back.

3. Jordan Westerkamp, WR: The mustachioed 6-foot junior -- a Lombard, Ill., native who broke the IHSA state finals receiving yards record the last time he played in Champaign -- broke out last season (747 receiving yards) but now is one of the top receivers in the Big Ten, leading the conference in receptions (26 for 351 yards and four touchdowns). Though, teammate Brandon Reilly (17 catches for 336 yards) is also very dangerous.

4. Maliek Collins, DT: The 6-foot-2, 300-pound defensive tackle doesn't rack up the stats (five tackles, two quarterback hurries in two games) but he was named to a few preseason First-Team All-Big Ten lists for a reason. Collins dominates the trenches and clogs up the middle (Nebraska ranks first in the Big Ten in rushing defense), allowing teammates to make plays.

5. Freedom Akinmoladun, DE: The 6-foot-4, 255-pound redshirt freshman is making the most of his opportunity, filling in for injured senior captain Jack Gangwish, and leads the Huskers with 6.0 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks.

6. De'Mornay Pierson-El, WR/PR: The 5-foot-9, 185-pound sophomore is a wild card. He will be active for the first time this season following an offseason foot injury but his reps likely will be limited. After returning three punts for touchdowns last season, Pierson-El was a preseason All-American kick/punt returner who Nebraska uses the home-run threat as a jet-sweep rushing option as well.

Keys to the game

1. Prevent the pass, then worry about Armstrong Jr.'s legs: The Illini won't be able to shut down Armstrong Jr., who is equally dangerous through the air and on the ground. But on pass plays, the Illini should prioritize coverage over Armstrong's running ability to prevent any big pass plays (like it gave up vs. Middle Tennessee). If Armstrong tucks and runs, the Illini back seven must react -- but should not commit to Armstrong before he passes the line of scrimmage. A 6- to 10-yard run is more manageable than a 30-plus yard pass.

2. Attack the middle: Nebraska's linebacker unit has been ravaged by injuries. Starters Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey (groin) both will miss Saturday's game with injury. The Illini can test the inexperienced, suspect backups by spreading them out in four wide receiver sets or getting running back Josh Ferguson -- who has just 11 receptions through four games -- out in space on pass plays. With the emergence of freshman running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, you wonder if Illini coach Bill Cubit will use Ferguson more as a receiving option.

3. Capitalize in red zone: The Illini have moved the ball well in between the 20s but rank 112th in the country in red-zone conversion percentage (73.7). The Illini have reached the end zone in just 11 of 19 (57.9 percent) red-zone opportunities. Nebraska's offense likely will put up some points, so the Illini offense can't afford to leave any points on the board.

Illini in the spotlight

Offense

Marchie Murdock, WR: The redshirt sophomore slot receiver has experienced as struggle (several dropped passes) as success (18 catches for 166 yards, 2 TDs) this season. But he needs to show growth Saturday against the Huskers. While Geronimo Allison is quarterback Wes Lunt's go-to target, Murdock should have many opportunities against Nebraska's suspect coverage. He must win some one-on-one battles in the screen game and crossing patterns. Hopefully for the Illini, he can limit the drops and play a clean game.

Defense

Jihad Ward, DE: Nebraska has run fewer option under Riley. But if Riley watched the North Carolina film (or last year's Nebraska film), he will quickly see that the Illini have struggled mightily against the option -- or a strong rushing offense, in general. The biggest key to stopping the quarterback in a zone-read option is the defensive end sticking to his assignment and keeping contain. Ward (and Dawuane Smoot) must stick on Armstrong Jr., not falling for fakes to the running backs or jet-sweep motion players, and hit him hard when given the opportunity.

Prediction

The Illini have lost the last two Big Ten openers at Nebraska by a combined score of 84-33. Nebraska lost two of the Big Ten's best playmakers (Ameer Abdullah and Randy Gregory) from those teams and has had some natural struggles under a coach (Riley) who is the polar opposite of Bo Pelini. An improved Illini defense should keep this game more competitive. Still, the Huskers have superior talent. And like I said before the North Carolina game, the Illini must prove they can stop a talented, power-five offensive team before I believe it. The receivers' struggles give me even less confidence to pick the upset.

Nebraska 35, Illinois 24


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