Illinois is not a good football team. They come into Lincoln a sketchy 3-1, wins against Youngstown State (FCS), Western Kentucky (Conference USA), and Texas State (Sun Belt). They were destroyed by Washington (44-19), a team that barely beat Hawai'i, and gave up 52 points to FCS-level Eastern Washington in a 59-52 win.
There is no reason for Nebraska to lose this game, UNLESS they've been reading their press this week and become convinced that they've accomplished something. Bo Pelini has established a trademark on losing at least one game a season he has no business losing, and this could be one of those games. Michigan State is coming up next week, and if the Huskers don't keep their focus on the Illini...
Up Early, Stay Late
Illinois' offensive issues are well known. Their offense is lackluster in the first half, then catches on fire in the second. Nebraska's defense is 32nd nationally in total defense, which might be impressive were that they'd played outstanding offenses but they have not. Illinois will be the best they've faced so far and the Illini are 68th in total offense.
The Husker defense has given up a touchdown on the opponent's first offensive drive in each of their three home games. It's time to shut that down; don't let this be the game in which Illinois changes their style, heating up in the first half.
Nebraska's offensive firepower is well known. They should score like voting in Chicago; early and often. After they've scored a bunch early, then they need to keep scoring late. Tim Beck should keep his foot on the gas no matter the score.
Illinois defense is not pretty; 95th in total defense, 83rd in rushing defense, and 95th in passing defense. Nebraska showed against Miami that they can grind out a running game if a team plays them straight up.
It'll be interesting to see what Illinois does on defense. If they stack the box to slow down the running game, they have the chance of being burned to death by big plays from Jordan Westerkamp and Kenny Bell. IF they play straight up, they stand the chance of Nebraska's offense pounding them into the ground, churning clock and shortening the game.
Fans will want to see Ameer Abdullah get carries, but the key will be making sure the carries are split so that Abdullah is ready for the Spartan defense the following week. This would be an excellent game for Imani Cross and Terrell Newby to get some carries and rack up yardage on the ground. id things in public.
Find A Linebacker
What to do if you're the Illinois offensive coordinator? You take note of Nebraska's linebacker situation and with David Santos out, you attack the middle of the field with crossing routes. Nebraska should counter by moving to a nickel but in doing so, you're going to ask a linebacker to cover Josh Ferguson.
This may cause problems given Nebraska's apparent lack of speed at linebacker. It may also expose the Husker defense to breakdowns as Illinois uses quick pases or draws; a slower linebacker out of position becomes even more of a liability in that situation.
The good news is Pelini's comment on the linebacker situation this week. After Thursday's practice, Pelini commented:
After a shaky start defensive start in the first few games, Pelini is happy with the progress the linebackers have made since the victory over Miami last weekend.
"We've definitely had a good week," he said. "I mean it always depends how they're going to come out and choose to play us, but we could definitely end up in multiple packages. We just have to see how it plays out. Our linebackers have had a good week."
Much has been made of Wes Lunt's production - Lunt is currently 15th nationally in passing at 309.3 yards per game. His 11 touchdowns are tied for ninth. Four of those touchdowns came against Youngstown State and three against Western Kentucky, a game in which Lunt threw for 456 yards.
Lunt is young; he is a sophomore, starting his first four games at Illinois after transferring from Oklahoma State where he started as a true freshman. His inexperience may make him prone to mistakes, and he is not a mobile quarterback. Such a profile might bring one to think the Huskers should go after him with repeated blitzes and pressure.
However, the aforementioned quick passes and draws mean that Nebraska's defensive line can't just take off up field. Pressure must be judiciously applied, lest the Huskers give up big plays.
Taking Care of Business
This game is all about taking care of business. Cheesy, cliche'd, but that's what it is. Focus on the opponent you're playing and not the big one coming in the next week, and the Huskers should come away with an easy win.