Illinois (1-2) at No. 15 Nebraska (4-0)
Time: 2:30 p.m. CT
TV: ESPN2 (Dave LaMont and Kelly Stouffer)
Series: Nebraska leads the all-time series 9-3-1. Nebraska is 7-1 against Illinois in Lincoln with the Illini's only victory a 9-6 win in 1924.
Vegas betting line: Nebraska (+21)
Last week: Illini had a bye week; Nebraska won at Northwestern 24-13.
The week's links
+6: Nebraska's turnover margin, which ranks eighth in the FBS. Illinois has a plus-one turnover margin.
6.79: Yards per pass attempt by Illini quarterback Wes Lunt (89th among FBS quarterbacks). Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. averages 8.78 yards per pass attempt (27th FBS).
9: Interceptions by Nebraska through four games, which ranks fourth nationally. Nebraska totaled 10 interceptions in 13 games last season.
9.0: Tackles for loss per game by Illini senior defensive end Carroll Phillips, a 3.0 TFL per game rate which leads the FBS. Phillips also has 4.0 sacks, a rate of 1.33 which is tied for fifth in the FBS.
13: Straight losses by Illinois to opponents ranked in the AP Poll. The Illini have lost 22 of 23 to ranked opponents since winning at No. 1 Ohio State in 2007 with the lone win over that span coming with a 2011 home win over No. 22 Arizona State.
15.7: yards per completion for Nebraska, which ranks 12th in the nation.
42: Points Nebraska has scored off its Big Ten-leading 10 takeaways this season.
91: Rush attempts this season by Illinois, lowest in the Big Ten by 17 carries (Purdue). Nebraska has 188 rush attempts this season.
103: Career wins at power-five programs by Nebraska coach Mike Riley, which ranks 10th among active coaches.
242.0: Rushing yards per game for Nebraska, which ranks third in the Big Ten and 21st nationally. Nebraska ran for 310 yards at Northwestern last week.
350: Consecutive home sellouts at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium, a streak dating back to Nov. 3, 1962. Saturday's game is sold out and will mark the 351st consecutive sellout.
Cornhuskers to watch
1. Tommy Armstrong Jr., senior QB: The Juice Williams-like quarterback has made his mark all over the Nebraska record book. He is the Huskers all-time leading passer (7,622 passing yards) and second in career total offense (9,210 yards). Armstrong currently ranks sixth among Huskers quarterbacks in career wins (26) and is four wins away from joining the top-three with Tommie Frazier (33 wins) and Eric Crouch (35 wins).
2. Terrell Newby, senior RB: While sophomore Devine Ozigbo leads the Huskers with 283 rushing yards (4.3 ypc), Newby (187 yards, 5.8 ypc) is the starter and more versatile back. Ozigbo gets the tough, plodding yards, but Newby is the one who can turn a small Illini mistake into a huge play. Also, look out for Chicago De La Salle product Mikale Wilbon. He made the most of his opportunity at Northwestern, running for a career-high 55 yards on six carries. He could earn a larger role and has some big-play capability.
3. Jordan Westerkamp, senior WR: The Lombard (Ill.) Montini grad and Huskers team captain earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last season (65 receptions, 918 yards, 7 TDs). He is fourth on the NU career receiving yardage list with 2,111 yards, just 578 yards from the No. 1 spot.
4. Cethan Carter, senior TE: The 6-foot-4, 240-pound tight end is on the Mackey Award Watch List and is a versatile weapon who has nine catches for 99 yards and a touchdown Carter is on pace to finish No. 2 among Nebraska tight ends in career receptions.
5. Ross Dzuris, senior DE: The winner of Nebraska's most improved player award in 2015 has continued that trend as a senior. Through four games, Dzuris leads the Huskers with six tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
6. Nathan Gerry, senior FS: The three-year starter, team captain and All-Big Ten candidate is the heart and soul of the Huskers defense. He has 11 career interceptions (three shy of the Nebraska record) and 223 career tackles, fourth most among Nebraska defensive backs.
Keys to the game
1. Contain zone-read option: The good news is that Illinois has seen plenty of zone-read option this season. The bad news is that Illinois has given up a lot of big plays to the zone-read option this season -- and Zach Terrell and Mitch Trubisky aren't nearly as dangerous on the run as Armstrong. Dawuane Smoot has done a pretty good job during his career against the zone-read option, but Nebraska likely saw defensive end Carroll Phillips against WMU and UNC getting overaggressive and committing too early to either the running back or the quarterback. The Illini must have good eye discipline and stay assignment sound. If not, Armstrong and the Nebraska backs will have some pretty big openings. Armstrong is most dangerous outside the pocket, where he can tuck and run or draw defenders in and pass down the field. Illinois succeeded last year by keeping Amrstrong in the pocket. They must duplicate that effort.
2. Stretch the field: No, this isn't just about Wes Lunt going all Rex Grossman on the Huskers. But when Illinois has the opportunity to stretch the field, he and the receivers must connect (Lunt has missed some openings and the receivers have dropped too many passes with big-play potential). But you know what would open the vertical throws more than anything? A RUN GAME! While so much heat has been on Lunt, a pocket passer rarely can be successful without a running attack that poses a threat. The Illinois offensive line simply was terrible against WMU, when the Illini ran for three total yards. The return of Gabe Megginson allows the best five to get back on the field, so here's hoping they can make enough room to get the run game going, which would give Lunt and the receivers more opportunities.
3. Win the takeaway battle: Lovie Smith's football philosophy centers around winning the turnover margin, which is why his defense is uber-aggressive in its pursuit of turnovers. But the Illinois defense has just one takeaway the last two games, a Ryan Switzer muffed punt. To pull off an upset on the road, the Illini will need to win the turnover margin, likely by +2.
He may be a mainstay here. Lunt is under the microscope -- and not just for fans. The Illini coaching staff has bluntly called out Lunt, asking him to push the ball down the field, take more risks and to show more passion and toughness. Lunt looked rattled and scared against UNC. Against WMU, he looked more comfortable in the pocket but missed a few throws and made too many conservative throws. Lunt takes pride in taking care of the ball, and he shouldn't get careless, but he needs to be more aggressive. He's got the arm to fit the ball into tight windows and to throw receivers open. And if he tucked the ball and ran for a first down, he might make believers out of a few fans and, more importantly, some of his teammates. His receivers must play better. His offensive line must ignite some type of run game. But this offense is so flawed that it relies so much on Lunt playing like a future NFL quarterback this season. He hasn't yet this season. For Illinois to have any chance against Nebraska, Lunt finally needs to bring his "A" game.
Nickelback Chris James played a bulk of the snaps at the interchangeable 11th spot on defense. Illinois plays either its nickelback or strongside linebacker based on whether the opposing offense plays two receivers or three-plus receivers. Watch the sidelines, if three receivers are in, James is in the game. If a team goes with a more traditional set with two receivers, a tight end and two running backs, Watson runs into the game. Illinois played almost exclusively spread offenses during the first three weeks so James played most of the snaps. But Watson should get plenty of playing time on Saturday because Nebraska often uses both a fullback and a tight end. The Illini will ask the strongside linebacker take on blockers, disrupt the backfield on blitzes and help keep contain of Armstrong. Watson will not only get the chance to make his first career start but make his first real impact on the Illini defense.
In Year One under Mike RIley, everything that could go wrong basically went wrong for Nebraska, which lost four games in its last possession -- including a 14-13 loss at Illinois. Just as Iowa probably wasn't as good as its 12-0 regular season record last season and now appears to be regressing to the mean, Nebraska wasn't as bad as its 5-7 regular season record and is now progressing to the mean. Nebraska isn't in the top tier of Big Ten teams, but is any Big Ten West team (Wisconsin certainly is impressive, but let's see what they do this weekend at Ann Arbor)?
The Cornhuskers have dealt with a lot of adversity, including the tragic death of punter Sam Foltz and now criticism from the Nebraska governor and a NU regent of players who knelt during the national anthem. But this senior-laden team appears hyper-focused on the task at hand. Riley seems to have successfully buried any ill feelings from the ugly end to the Bo Pelini era and now has buy in from his players and the fan base. Riley also stopped trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and re-shaped his offense to best fit Armstrong's running talent. The Huskers again are a Big Ten West contender and have a clear path to a 7-0 start with Indiana and Purdue on the schedule following Saturday's game against Illinois. And they won't overlook Illinois. The Huskers have revenge on their mind.
As for Illinois, the last two games showed how far away they are from teams like Nebraska. Both North Carolina and Western Michigan would be worthy opponents for the Huskers -- and Illinois lost to UNC and WMU by 25 and 24 points, respectively. Winning at Lincoln is very unlikely for a team that has way less talent and way less depth. Plus, Illinois seems to be going through the growing pains of a coaching transition -- just like Nebraska was last season. The players are still figuring out how to play in the coaching staff's schemes, and the coaches are still figuring out who can play in their schemes.
Illinois doesn't believe in moral victories, but it would be nice just to come away with a clean game where they play to their potential against a good team. But we haven't seen that yet. And if Illinois continues to shoot itself in the foot and struggle in both running and defending the run, this one could get away from them quickly.