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Nebraska vs Illinois: What Are We Watching For?

The Huskers will face a hefty challenge against Illinois tomorrow. Here's what we're watching for during the game.

Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis had this to say about communication issues during the South Dakota State game after Wednesday's practice:

"It was a lot communication issues, just getting our guys comfortable and making the calls and taking command." Papuchis said, "One thing we have been blessed with while we have been here is a Mike linebacker that is willing to take charge. Whether it was Phil Dillard or Lavonte or Will Compton those guys took charge. That is what we need, a field general that is going to help people get lined up."

Entering Big Ten Conference play the coaches are still looking for leaders on defense. That shouldn't make anyone feel better as the Huskers head into a game against Illinois. Illinois will run pre-snap shifts, a host of different formations including spread and four tight-end sets, trick plays, you name it - in other words, they're the kind of offense that will test where the Husker defense is in terms of lining up correctly.

Lining up correctly - why does something that should seem so simple be that much of a challenge? I'll go with a Barrett Ruud quote for the explanation of that one:

With the Huskers on the bye this week, I was able to watch a bunch of college football this weekend (and put a pretty massive dent in my couch in the process). It was very apparent that offense is being played at an all-time level. Not only are the scheme's as innovative as ever, the skill in which they are being executed is phenomenal. Even middle of the pack teams play a brand of offense that poses a challenge to any defense it faces.

Basically, two offensive advantages: innovative schemes and phenomenal execution.

Illinois will challenge the Nebraska defense as much as anyone else they face during the rest of this regular season. The good news is Illinois will provide the Husker coaching staff with "teaching moments" as we head through October.

Run Offense

It's going to be windy. Nebraska has a redshirt freshman quarterback making his second start. Our opponent is ranked 70th nationally in run defense while our run offense is 13th. This is the perfect opportunity to run the ball at your opponent until they make you stop, and if that's not enough look at this quote from

Ameer Abdullah, Imani Cross, Terrell Newby. Get all three their carries, hit a play-action pass once in a while and Nebraska should be fine. On the other hand, if Illinois stacks the box and Tim Beck starts having Tommy Armstrong Jr throw wide receiver screens you might want go ahead and pull all your hair out before the second quarter starts because it's going to be a four-quarter game if that happens.

Defense - Key Players

This morning I mentioned accountability and responsibility as being the two hardest things to coach.

Much is expected of Vincent Valentine, a redshirt freshman defensive tackle. He is a good representative of the challenge in that area, especially given what Pelini had to say about him during Big Ten Media Days:

To step up to this next level, he's got to understand the type of mentality, the type of work ethic, and being able to fight through when you're tired.

Take a series when Valentine is in on defense and watch him (he's #98). Is he getting pushed around by the offensive linemen? Is he getting off blocks? If he is doing those things, is he doing it on every play?

Take another series and watch middle linebacker David Santos (he's #41). The John Papuchis quote from above should tell you what to watch for. Is he directing other defensive players? Is he in the right place at the right time and making tackles?

You have a DVR - go back and watch the play over and over again if you want to see what's happening (or not, this is what I frequently do, and nobody watches football with me).

Valentine and Santos are two guys who are key to Nebraska's success on defense. If they're not playing well, you can probably bet that the defense has a long way to go to maturity, and as I said this morning, maturity has to come before the defense will be successful at the more technical side of the game, i.e., schemes.

Big Play Defense

Illinois loves trick plays - they're ranked 19th nationally in plays over 20 yards. Nebraska is tied for 99th in that category, having given up 25 plays of 20+ yards. Move that stat up to 10+ yards, and the Huskers are 114th with 79 plays given up.

Husker fans have seen the defense gashed for big yardage in every game this season. It's likely we'll see it again versus Illinois, but given their defensive woes, it'll be more of a matter of who makes more big plays than whether or not they're made.

Also - keep in mind "big play defense" works both ways. Illinois has a good passing offense. Nebraska has two cornerbacks who are capable of making big plays - Stanley Jean-Baptiste is tied for first in the country in interceptions and Ciante Evans is tied for fourth with three. Look for both of them to make the plays that separate Nebraska from Illinois.