I have to be honest, in that I didn't know much about Illinois before this year. I knew about Nathan Scheelhaase obviously, and the fact that Aaron Bailey landed there (a QB that Nebraska wanted pretty badly before Johnny Stanton came in the picture). But, other than that, all I knew was that this team was doormat material.
However, there is that whole sense of "what if" around this game, so it's a good idea to find out what Nebraska has in store for themselves. For that, we contacted Brandon Birkhead, writer at the Illinois SBNation community The Champaign Room. He sent us over a Q/A too, and our responses are right here.
1. Well, being 3-1 isn’t a bad thing at all for Tim Beckman. There are some winnable games for the Illini right now before the end of the year, where NW and Ohio St wait. What’s the mood in Champaign right now over the team?
Right now we feel really good. We were expected three wins on the season, and now we already are there. Some are thinking bowl game, but we will need a big win in the conference to have the Illini fans fully buy in.
2. Nathan Scheelhaase looks very comfortable in Bill Cubit’s offense. What has, in your eyes, been the biggest difference between Nathan the last couple of years and this year, if anything?
He is healthy and the team is keeping him from getting injured. He always had the smarts and the talent to play well, it's just the team around him didn't provide the proper support. Last year was nightmare. No one was getting open and no one could pass protect.
This year, Bill Cubit is calling terrific plays, getting guys open, and most importantly, keeping Nathan Scheelhaase from getting injured. It's great to see what a guy can do with a great offensive coach.
3. Donovonn Young seems to be the traditional RB out of the backfield, but it also looks like Josh Ferguson has become a multi-tool for the offense too. Talk about what they bring to the table that may make the Husker D sweat.
You hit it on the head, DY is our power back, and Ferguson is our offensive weapon.
DY is tough to bring down, and he has decent moves. His lack of speed is noticeable, but he is a solid RB.
Ferguson is the guy Huskers fans should be most concerned with. He has good speed and very good vision to set up guys to miss. He also is a guy who can catch passes and play out wide, which allows the Illini to be versatile in their formations, which is one of the main reasons for the success of the offense.
4. Ryan Lankford is the leading WR, but I noticed that the 2 deep for Illinois at TE has a couple of big guys, with Evan Wilson and Matt LaCosse being big targets that get yards when they catch the ball. What kind of receiving core can Big Red take on?
Don't forget about Jon Davis. He is the Illini's most athletic TE, and he has been used at WR, TE and RB this season. His issue is his can't stay off the injury list.
The Illini don't have one go to guy, but rather they have about 7 guys that they feel comfortable with. Last week the Illini completed passes to 11 different WRs. The idea is you can't focus on everyone, and Scheelhaase will find the favorable matchup.
5. The Illinois Defense isn’t the best thing in the world. They had a good day vs Miami-Ohio last week, but it’s not like the Redhawks are tearing it up. Knowing now you’re probably not going to see Taylor Martinez, are you worried that Tommy Armstrong Jr can find receivers and run the football? Or is this a whole D thing where nothing can be stopped in your eyes?
This defense lacks talent all over the defense. The front 4 is undersized, and the secondary is very inexperienced. This is just a defense that won't be able to stop effective offensive teams, no matter what style they play.
That being said, I am extremely concerned about the run defense this week. The Huskies scored a TD against the Illini running the same running play 7 times in a row. This team just can't get off blocks.
6. Talk about anyone that I may have missed that we should keep an eye on Saturday.
Two guys come to mind right away; Jonathan Brown and Martize Barr. Barr is a juco transfer at WR, and he looks better and better each week. As he gains more experience in the offense, he should get even better.
Brown is the Illini's best player. He has everything you want in a linebacker, and then some. He is incredibly fast sideline to sideline. He is the only player that is worthy of a draft pick on the Illini.
7. In your Q/A for us, you said you will likely never be comfortable with Nebraska being a member of the Big Ten. Why would that be? And would that feeling be shared with Maryland and Rutgers joining the fray?
I grew up with the 11 man Big Ten. That's what I know. Nebraska was always a Big 12 team to me, and always will be. They don't seem to fit the profile of a Big Ten team in any way to me. I would have much preferred Missouri to join the conference, as they fit better into the culture, and also the Illini-Mizzou rivalry.
And hell yes I feel the same way about Maryland and Rutgers. I hate it. All of it. Maryland is next to the ocean. What happened to my Big Ten?
8. Alright, prediction time. Tell us how you see the game evolving and your final score.
I think the game will be a high scoring affair that is close in the beginning of the game. In the end I see the Huskers getting some key turnovers, and running the ball in the 4th quarter to pull away. Huskers 45 Illini 36
Thanks to Brandon for his help this week. Make sure to check out The Champaign Room during and after the game for their reactions.