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October 5, 2013

Match-up watch: Illinois

NU Run Offense vs. Illinois Run Defense
The Huskers average 280.8 yards per game on the ground this season, yet it feels like there is even more out there for this offense. That speaks to the overall talent level and experience of Nebraska's veteran offensive line and its impressive stable of backs. Ameer Abdullah is averaging 116.2 yards per contest and has gone over the century mark in every game except UCLA, when he finished with 98. He's certainly deserving of every carry he gets, but will NU look to balance things out more? Terrell Newby and Imani Cross have fewer carries combined than Abdullah (66 to 74).

Whoever is toting the ball today should find some open running lanes. Illinois allows opponents to run for 160.5 yards per game on the ground (4.33 per carry). Jonathan Brown is a tackling machine with 47 stops on the season, but the Illini have just 21 tackles for loss in four games.

The interesting wrinkle here is Tommy Armstrong. The freshman has shown great ability running the option, which could allow Nebraska to break some big plays on the outside. He did fumble on one run against South Dakota State and must clean that up.

Edge: NEBRASKA

NU Pass Offense vs. Illinois Pass Defense
The Nebraska coaches said all week that Taylor Martinez would only play today if he was 100 percent healthy, and they stayed true to their word. Martinez will miss his second straight contest due to turf toe, leaving the quarterback duties to Armstrong and Ron Kellogg. That duo performed very well against South Dakota State, combining to complete 20 of 24 passes for 305 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

They will be facing a tougher secondary against Illinois, but the Illini's defense is not a strong unit. Illinois allows opponents to complete 63.2 percent of their passes and has managed to intercept just one attempt this year. Part of that is due a meager pass rush, which has totaled only four sacks.

It will be interesting to see how much the Huskers rotate their quarterbacks. Armstrong and Kellogg basically flipped every other series against SDSU - will the coaches go with that method again or hand the reins to Armstrong, who appears to be the team's future at the position?

Edge: NEBRASKA

Illinois Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
Nebraska's efforts against the run have been the biggest disappointment of the young season. The Huskers give up 179.5 yards per game on the ground and allow opponents to average 4.9 yards per rush. The coaches have rotated a number of defensive linemen and linebackers into the lineup to try and shake things up, but it's all been in vain to this point.

The good news for Nebraska is that Illinois is not a very effective running team. Once a dangerous scrambler, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has just 31 yards this year and his backup, freshman Aaron Bailey, actually leads the team with three rushing scores. Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson are a capable duo at tailback, but have only 76 carries between them his year.

It will be interesting to see if the bye week helped NU solve its rushing defense woes. The Blackshirts allowed SDSU's Zach Zenner to run for 202 yards in their last outing, but John Papuchis and company said the week off gave the Huskers a chance to focus on their fundamentals. It will be an ugly scene if they don't show improvement today. Although the Illini aren't all that dangerous on the ground, it's simply impossible to give Nebraska the edge here until they prove they can stop someone.

Edge: Illinois

Illinois Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
Billed as the backbone of the defense coming into the year, the secondary has been a mild letdown. They are forcing far more interceptions than in the past and Stanley Jean-Baptiste is submitting a All-Conference type campaign so far. But opponents are completing 63 percent of their passes, a massive jump from last year, and Northwestern is the only Big Ten team that gives up more passing yards per game.

After a disappointing junior season, Scheelhaase has rebounded with a vengeance. He's completing 67.2 percent of his throws and already has 1,162 yards and 12 touchdowns. He's also been careful with the ball, throwing just three picks. His line doesn't do a great job of protecting him, however - Illinois has already given up 10 sacks.

That statistic is music to the ears of Randy Gregory, who is eager to start turning some of his many quarterback pressures into sacks. But it's time for someone to give him some help - Avery Moss was a terror in the UCLA game but has been pretty quiet otherwise. If Scheelhaase has time to sit in the pocket and survey the field, it could be a long day for NU's secondary.

Edge: Illinois

Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Kenny Bell has been a beast on kick returns (30.6 average) and Sam Foltz has done a great job punting, but the rest of NU's special teams really remain a mystery. The Huskers have returned just three punts all year and special teams coordinator Ross Els is still deciding between Newby, Jamal Turner and Jordan Westerkamp for the returner position.

The kicking battle is just as undecided. The coaches say neither Mauro Bondi or Pat Smith has separated himself from the other, so they will continue to rotate on kicks. But should the game come down to the wire, which does Nebraska trust more to step up and make a big kick?

Illinois kicked Taylor Zalewski has already missed three of his seven field goal attempts, but the Illini have a stable of explosive returners. V'Angelo Bentley has already returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and averages 15.8 yards per punt return. Miles Osei is a fine punt returner himself, averaging 11 yards per attempt.

Edge: PUSH

Nebraska Will Win If:

The defense shows some signs of life. Even without Martinez, the Huskers should have little trouble moving the ball against the Illini. But if the Blackshirts don't show signs of major improvement, Illinois is going to give Nebraska a fight.

Illinois Will Win If:

Scheelhaase has a career game through the air. Despite the experience in the secondary, Nebraska has given up passing yards in chunks, as Brett Smith and Brett Hundley can certainly attest to. If Scheelhaase is able to get something going early, Illinois would force Armstrong and Kellogg to play catch-up, something they have never been asked to do.

X-Factor:

Turner's involvement in the offense. After finishing last season on fire, Turner has just 84 yards receiving this year. Maybe today is the game that he breaks out and starts making the highlight-reel plays he showcased at the end of 2012.

Prediction:
Nebraska 42, Illinois 30



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