Date: Saturday, October 1
Kickoff: 2:30 p.m.
Venue: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, NE
Network: ESPN 2
After beating Northwestern 24-13 last week to pick up their first conference win, No. 15 Nebraska (4-0, 1-0) will host Illinois (1-2) on Saturday.
The Illini turned to Lovie Smith to be their head coach in the offseason. The former 11-year NFL head coaching vet will bring a pro-style offense to Lincoln, which could be lethal against the Blackshirt defense. Illinois’ offense is led by senior quarterback Wes Lunt, and fueled by running backs Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Kendrick Foster.
Lunt has racked up a 62 percent completion percentage through the first three games of the season – finding the end zone six times to just one interception. His favorite target is Malik Turner, who has 15 catches and three touchdowns so far this season.
Vaughn and Foster are the Fighting Illini’s one-two punch combo on offense. Together, the two have combined for 362 yards on the ground and four touchdowns. With 18 carries, Foster is averaging 9.7 yards per carry, while his sophomore counterpart has connected on a 65-yard touchdown.
Nebraska’s defense, however, ranks in the top 15 in the country in turnover margin. The Huskers have scored 42 points off of their 10 takeaways thus far. Nebraska also ranks fourth in the country in interceptions, and in their game against Northwestern last week, defensive backs Joshua Kalu and Aaron Williams each added one to their resume.
The Blackshirts sacked Clayton Thorson four times, two of which were on two consecutive plays by Kevin Maurice. The Huskers held the Wildcats to just 137 yards on the ground, proving why their rush defense is ranked as the 22nd best in the country.
Nebraska will also have wide receiver’s coach Keith Williams back on the sidelines for the first time this year. Williams served a four-game suspension after receiving his third DUI over the summer. Coach “Dub” could spark energy and up the overall morale on the sidelines, and the wide receivers could make it a point to shine against Illinois. A big game through the air could please recruits visiting, including the nation’s number one overall wide receiver, Joseph Lewis.
“I think it’s going to be great to have Keith back, that was a hard, no-good situation,” said Riley. “I think we’ve been through the consequences of that, so we’re excited to have him back now, full-fledged into the practices, the games, and the whole part. It’ll be real good for the Huskers to have him back.”
After facing the Wildcats last week, who are known for their stingy defense, Nebraska head coach Mike Riley said Illinois’ defensive front will be the top unit they have faced up to this point.
“We had trouble with their defensive end, No. 91, last year,” said Riley. “They have two defensive ends that are good; they have defensive tackles who are good. So their front will be tough.”
The Huskers hold the all-time record against the Fighting Illini at 9-3-1. Last year, Illinois came back and beat Nebraska after a couple of offensive-miscues by the Huskers. This will be the second time Nebraska head coach Mike Riley will face Illinois, and it is the first meeting between Riley and Illinois head coach Lovie Smith. Saturday is also homecoming for the Huskers, where they have won the last seven, including 2013 and 2014 wins over Illinois.
What A Win Means For Nebraska:
A win for Nebraska would mark their second avenged victory over a team that beat them last year. The Huskers would improve to 5-0 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten. If the Huskers want a realistic chance at competing in the Big Ten West, they need to win the games that they should.
What A Win Means For Illinois:
First-year head coach Lovie Smith is in search of a big win and a victory over the No. 15 Cornhuskers would be something he could sell to both donors and recruits that the program is headed in the right direction.
Nebraska Players To Watch On Offense:
The senior quarterback continues to impress. Against Northwestern last time out, Armstrong Jr. had a career-high 135 yards on the ground, as well as 246 yards through the air. The Texas native finished the game with one passing touchdown, but more importantly, no interceptions. Armstrong’s performance earned him Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week. It looks as if the light bulb has gone off in the 6-foot-1, 220-pound quarterback’s head and everything is clicking this year. Armstrong has been a huge factor in the Husker’s offense this year, accounting for 12 total touchdowns in four games, and shattering Nebraska records in the process. It seems that the senior has corrected his mistakes from a year ago and looks to be one of the best at his position in the Big Ten.
With guard Tanner Farmer (ankle) out this week, Nebraska will turn to Whitaker to make his first career start. The senior guard filled in last week when Farmer went down in the second half against Northwestern. The 6-foot-5, 295-pounder played the final 24 snaps of the game and was involved on Jordan Westerkamp’s 10-yard rushing touchdown in the third quarter. Whitaker has battled injuries his entire career, including two season-ending knee injuries and a knee injury in the preseason. The California native is eager to make the most of his playing time. “I never quit at anything, so I wasn’t going to start now,” said Whitaker.
The senior I-back has been solid on the ground this year (32 carries, 187 yards, 5.8 ypc.), but last week struggled against the Wildcats. On the third play of the game, Newby broke free for a 49-yard run and took it all the way down to the end zone but fumbled the ball reaching for the goal line. After the fumble, the California native really couldn’t anything going on the ground, where he finished with just 69 yards (although he did score a 4-yard touchdown). As Riley stated, Illinois will have a big defensive front looking to stop the run. After being shut down up the middle last week, look for the 5-foot-10, 200-pound back to try and get things going early.
Nebraska Players To Watch On Defense:
The Nebraska native was able to give Nebraska 20 snaps in the second half against Northwestern last week, after battling injuries all season. He recorded two tackles and assisted on one sack. His play could open the door for an increased role this week. With an effective running back duo in this Illinois offense, it will be important for Nebraska to have their starting defensive tackle present in the middle of their line.. “I thought this past week, because we gave him some more time off, he was better,” said defensive coordinator Mark Banker. “I thought we rushed him probably the week before and then probably played [him] a little bit too much, but he seemed to play pain free and, with less reps, [he] was more effective.”
The sophomore linebacker has become a fast learner early in his career at Lincoln, and it seems that each week he continues to become better. Young recorded seven tackles last week, six of which were solo stops, and also had one pass breakup. His play drew praise from Riley, who said it might be the young linebacker’s best game at Nebraska. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder will have his hands full facing a pro-style offense this week, while facing a dynamic running back duo in Vaughn and Foster. Watch to see if Young can keep up with his improving theme thus far, and try to count how many plays he is involved in defensively. You might need an extra hand to count on.
Williams played his best game of the year, and arguably of his career, last week against Northwestern. The sophomore safety recorded a total of seven tackles, one pass breakup and an interception to give Nebraska momentum in the second half. Williams brings an aggressive and gritty style to the Blackshirt defense. He could have his work cutout for him facing a senior quarterback this week. Illinois signal-caller West Lunt has thrown six touchdowns and just one interception in their three games.
Reasons To Be Concerned:
When the Huskers took a trip to Champagne last year, they shot themselves in the foot more than once and handed Illinois the victory. Nebraska can’t allow Illinois to hang around in this one. After beating Nebraska last year, the Illinois players know it can be done, and could have the mentality of repeating last year’s game.
Injury Report For Nebraska:
* Senior wide receiver Alonzo Moore (shoulder) is listed as doubtful this week against Illinois. Moore played through a shoulder injury last week against Northwestern. The Louisiana native made it through the first half of the game against the Wildcats and recorded three catches for 72 yards, including a 59-yard reception, but sat out the second half of the game due to his injury. With such a deep wide receiving group, sitting Moore is more of a cautionary decision to have him back 100 percent later in the year.
* Redshirt sophomore Tanner Farmer (ankle) is also likely to miss this week’s game against the Fighting Illini. The sophomore went down with a high ankle sprain and was carted off into the locker room last week against Northwestern. Even though he came back with a taped ankle, the 6-foot-4, 295-pound guard was still grimacing after pushing off his ankle on the sidelines. Whitaker will start in his place. If Nebraska needs another guard, true freshman Boe Wilson could be called upon to burn his redshirt. Wilson is a former high school All-American.
Quote To Note:
“So, this thing about football whether you’ve coached a few years or 40 years, there’s still an awareness learning process that has to take place for me personally and for what is passed onto your team, so you react better. But I think having been in [late-game] situations and the number of guys we have returning, I think they’re now actually tools and can be helpful for us. Because I think there’s a special emphasis to how important those seconds are, how important that execution is, and those critical situations like that. And so I think that the emphasis and the preparation has probably been the best thing that’s come of that since [losing to Illinois] happened.” – Head coach Mike Riley
After two costly turnovers last week, the Huskers were in a closer battle than they had planned for against Northwestern. With the loss to the Illini last year on the back of their minds, Nebraska will come out to take care of business, and will do so early. With all the talk of how they’re still a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big Ten, despite being ranked No. 15 in the country, the Huskers could use this game to make a statement by winning by a landslide. Nebraska will have a balanced attack offensively, and Tommy Armstrong Jr. will have yet another big game on the ground and through the air. This game is also Coach Williams’ first game back, so there will undoubtedly be at least one big passing play. I predict Nebraska to take of business and to dominate the game from start to finish. Nebraska: 38, Illinois: 13
Publisher Josh Harvey’s thoughts:
The Nebraska 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? I think they will. Nebraska – 41, Illinois - 17