Big Red Report's Josh Harvey answers five questions from Illini Inquirer to preview Illinois football's Saturday trip to Lincoln for the Big Ten opener.

1. Year One of Mike Riley didn't go so well, with Nebraska going 5-7 overall including a loss to Illinois. Of course, the Cornhuskers had a lot of tough luck during the season. So how much of the Huskers' 4-0 start is just luck progressing to the mean compared to the team hitting its stride in Riley's system?

Josh Harvey: I don’t think there is any doubt Nebraska has had a few more bounces go their way this season, but it is also funny how that tends to happen when you are a better team. I think this team is definitely more comfortable on both sides of the football in year two of the Mike Riley era. The transition probably took longer than we realized it would. Nebraska as won seven of their last eight contests dating back to last year – their loss being to a top ten ranked Iowa. They are definitely hitting their stride.

2. Tommy Armstrong has so many similarities to former Illini quarterback Juice Williams. He's an unbelievably gifted athlete with a big arm but struggles with consistency and touch. How has he and the rest of this offense progressed?

Harvey: I think one of the biggest differences on offense this year compared to last is how they are using Armstrong. There are more designed runs and when Tommy has the ability to get out of the pocket he becomes more comfortable in the passing game. In the early going last year it looked at times like he was hesitant. He definitely has a better grasp on the offense, knows where his check-downs are, and has a feel on how long he can stay in the pocket before trying to escape.

3. Nebraska is in the middle of the pack of the Big Ten defensively. Playing Oregon might skew that a bit, but what have you seen from the Blackshirts so far this season? What's their identity and who are the players to watch?

Harvey: The Oregon game is skewing things a bit when you consider their usual high-power offense. Outside of that game, Nebraska is only giving up 13.3 points a contest. This Blackshirt group is creating a lot of turnovers, with nine interceptions in the first four games. Nate Gerry at safety is definitely a player to watch. Not only is he second on the team in tackles, but he’s got two interceptions and another dropped one. He’s a guy offensive coordinators have to pay attention to, because he’s really a do-it-all type of safety. He also leads the team with five tackles for loss, showing he’s not afraid to come up to the line of scrimmage.

4. Based on what we've seen so far how do you think Nebraska stacks up against the other Big Ten West contenders? Also, what did you think of the Lovie Smith hire and do you think he can lead Illinois to Big Ten respectability?

Harvey: Coming into the season I would have said Iowa is the clear favorite, with Nebraska slightly ahead of Wisconsin. Now the Big Ten West looks completely different, with Iowa down and Wisconsin better than most imagined. I still think the Badgers come back to earth eventually. Nebraska definitely has a shot at winning the West, but going to Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Iowa won’t be easy. I think anytime a program that has been a bit down can hire a former NFL coach who is well respected, it builds instant credibility. I would imagine it is helping on the recruiting front a lot already. Now the transition from the pros to college isn’t easy, but I believe Smith will make Illinois a constant bowl team down the road.

5. Nebraska is a 21-point favorite over Illinois. The Huskers should be motivated to get revenge over what was a pretty surprising loss in Champaign last year but more motivated to rise even higher in the polls and prove themselves as a Big Ten contender. What are your keys to the game and a score prediction?

Harvey: Nebraska struggled with the Illinois defensive line last year and Nebraska head coach Mike Riley said it is to date going to be the best group they have faced this season. The offensive line, which is a bit banged up, will need to try to get Tommy Armstrong enough time to get into a rhythm. Ultimately I think Nebraska will be able to put points on the board. The question will be can the Huskers look like a top 15 team and put away a team? Nebraska – 41, Illinois - 17


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