Five burning questions heading into Illinois week
1. Can the offense keep it rolling?
Nebraska’s offense has been playing its best football of the season the past four weeks, with one of its top performances yet coming in Saturday’s 36-31 road loss to No. 10 Ohio State considering the caliber of opponent.
The challenge will be significantly easier this week, as Illinois comes to Lincoln boasting the worst defense in the Big Ten Conference by a wide margin.
The Fighting Illini rank dead last in the league in scoring defense (36.9 points allowed per game), total defense (524.8 yards allowed per game), rushing defense (240.3 ypg), and are second-to-last in passing defense (284.4 ypg).
Things got so bad in Champaign that defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson decided to step down from his position last week.
The Huskers, on the other hand, now rank third in the Big Ten in total offense at 468.9 ypg, including tying the school record with six straight games with at least 450 total yards. Needless to say, that matchup sets up very nicely for Nebraska.
2. Will the Huskers play angry?
Despite the lopsided records and Ohio State’s recent run of dominance over Nebraska, the Huskers came to Columbus with the full belief that they could not only compete with the Buckeyes, but also even win the game.
While NU definitely opened some eyes with how well it played in the five-point loss, the players left that game legitimately upset that they couldn’t pull off the upset.
Will that frustration carry over to a much more manageable opponent at home this weekend? If Nebraska can use the OSU loss as motivation and can dial in with the same level of focus, this one probably shouldn’t even be close.
The other side to that, however, is whether falling so close from such a big win could have the opposite effect on the Huskers with a major step down in competition?
3. Can the Blackshirts keep up the takeaways?
A big reason why Nebraska was able to go blow-for-blow with Ohio State was keeping the momentum in their favor by forcing three game-changing turnovers.
The Huskers forced two fumbles and picked off a pass in the end zone to give them three forced turnovers in each of the past two games. The last time NU created three turnovers in two straight games was 2014.
There could have been even more opportunities for takeaways in the loss, too, had the defense been able to fall on any of the four other OSU fumbles that the Buckeyes recovered.
Illinois has actually been OK with its ball security this season, turning it over 14 times (Nebraska has 17) with eight interceptions and six lost fumbles, tying for fifth in the Big Ten with a +3 turnover margin.
Taking the ball away is so important to the success of Nebraska’s defensive scheme, and continuing to make those momentum-shifting plays at such a high rate would go a long way in making this win No. 3 on the season.
4. How will Bush do in his return to Lincoln?
Nebraska fans will see an old familiar face when Illinois takes the Memorial Stadium field on Saturday, as former Husker A.J. Bush will be directing Illinois’ offense as its starting quarterback.
Bush, a two-star recruit in 2014, never played a snap at NU while serving as a backup behind Tommy Armstrong. When it looked like he would be the No. 3 quarterback heading into the 2016 season, Bush transferred to Iowa Western C.C.
He then transferred to Virginia Tech in 2017 but again served in a backup role, seeing limited time in five games and attempting 11 total passes.
Now a fifth-year senior, Bush changed scenery one last time by transferring to Illinois, where he finally claimed the starting job during fall camp.
In seven games played Bush has completed 56.8 percent of his passes for 924 yards, five touchdowns, and five interceptions. He’s also been one of the Illini’s more effective rushers, ranking second on the team with 85 carries for 472 yards and five touchdowns.
5. Will the weather be an issue?
Looking ahead to the weekend forecast, Saturday should be the first time head coach Scott Frost’s offense has had to operate in true Big Ten winter weather.
As of Sunday night, the projected high for game day is only expected to get up to the low-30s or upper-40s, including a Friday overnight low of just 19 degrees.
With kickoff set for an 11 a.m., it will likely be the coldest weather the Huskers have played in this season.
It won’t be overwhelming winter conditions, but it still could impact the offense a bit, especially with a Northern California native at quarterback getting his first real taste of a Nebraska winter.