Nebraska football: 5 things to know as the Huskers prepare to host Illinois
It was ugly against Penn State, but a win is a win. It was good to see smiles from Nebraska players and coaches after the game.
Time to move on to Illinois. The Huskers have won the last 4 contests against the Illini and have lost only once since 2013. Here are 5 things to know ahead of the Huskers’ 11 a.m. home kickoff vs. the Illini.
We don’t know who Illinois will start at QB
Illinois has started 4 quarterbacks in 4 games (Brandon Peters, Matt Robinson, Coran Taylor and Isaiah Williams). Peters, the Michigan transfer and usual starter, will be available after sitting out the last 3 games due to Covid protocol. Does he start on Saturday?
If the Illini want any threat of the forward pass, Peters will be the guy.
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Williams, a former 4-star recruit who held offers (but not to play quarterback) from Alabama, Clemson and Florida, certainly provides some excitement in the run game. He rushed for 192 yards on 31 carries in last weekend’s 23-20 win over Rutgers. His passing skills, though, are still developing. Against Rutgers, Williams resembled a wildcat quarterback most of the time, only attempting 18 passes, with 7 completions for 104 yards. He fumbled twice, losing 1 of them.
Nebraska’s run defense will be tested
Again, this might depend on who the Illini start at quarterback.
Peters is more of a traditional quarterback at 6-5, 220 pounds, and he’s the team’s best passer. Last season he passed for over 250 yards 3 times. Peters isn’t a statue in the pocket, however, and has shown he’s not afraid to pull the ball down and pick up yards with his legs. He actually led Illinois in rushing in the season opener against Wisconsin with 75 yards on just 7 carries. He even broke off a 31-yarder that night.
Williams and Taylor, who played most of the Purdue game and started against Minnesota, are both run-first guys and basically running backs taking direct snaps.
The Illini will likely test Nebraska’s defense with a steady dose of runs. Illinois has the 4th-most rushing attempts in the B1G with 164 and is 3rd in yards-per-rush with 5.04.
Through 3 games, Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s group has impressed. Besides that blown coverage against Penn State that resulted in a 75-yard catch-and-run from tight end Pat Freiermuth, the Huskers defense played well against the Nittany Lions.
It’ll have to do so again against an offense that wants to establish the run.
Josh Imatorbhebhe is Illinois’ top receiver
The 6-2, 220-pound transfer from USC has been Illinois’ top playmaker for 2 seasons now.
Peters’ absence has hurt the Illini’s passing game this season, so Imatorbhebhe doesn’t have eye-opening stats (he only has 1 touchdown catch after hauling in 9 in 2019), but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s the best wideout in this game.
Whichever Nebraska corner draws Imatorbhebhe in coverage — that could be Cam Taylor-Britt, who may be more physically suited to battle with him at 6-feet and 205 pounds, or Dicaprio Bootle — is going to have his hands full. However, if it’s not Peters throwing the ball, Taylor-Britt or Bootle could have opportunities for interceptions as Williams and Taylor haven’t shown they’re accurate with the ball.
Nebraska’s defense fared well against Imatorbhebhe last season, holding him to only 1 catch. Maybe Chinander’s defense can do it again.
If Nebraska is ever going to find its passing offense, this is the game
Nebraska’s offense as a whole — especially the passing game — has struggled this season. The Huskers are only averaging 20 points per game and have scored the fewest touchdowns in the B1G (6). They’ve been outscored 59-6 in the second half and haven’t scored a touchdown in the third or fourth quarter.
But, and this is a big but, if there’s ever a game where the passing can get on track, this is it.
The Illini have been bad defending the pass this season. They’ve allowed the second-most touchdown throws in the B1G with 10.
Nebraska ranks 13th in the B1G in passing offense at 176.7 yards per game. Every Huskers fan knows how bad it’s been in that area. But maybe, just maybe, the Huskers can move the ball through the air in this game.
Wan’Dale Robinson had breakout game vs. Illinois last year, will have another Saturday
Last season, the Illinois game was Robinson’s coming-out party as a true freshman. That was when Husker Nation realized it had a dude on offense.
That night, Robinson cemented himself as the Huskers’ best offensive weapon after leading Nebraska to the win while rushing for 89 yards and 1 touchdown while catching 8 passes for 79 yards and 2 scores.
That seems like a million years ago, though. This season Robinson hasn’t had an impact in a game. Defenses are obviously keying on him, and that’s to be expected, but it’s on the coaching staff to find ways to get the ball in his hands.
The coaches did a better job getting him the ball against Penn State, but it was out of necessity. Starting running back Dedrick Mills was injured on the first drive and didn’t play the rest of the game. Robinson was the backup and rushed for 60 yards on 16 carries. He caught 5 passes, but they went for just 11 yards.
Robinson needs to bust out of this slump he finds himself in. Illinois could be the game to do it.