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Nebraska Cornhuskers at Illinois Fighting Illini: Preview, predictions and prognostications

Illinois and Nebraska meet under the lights on Friday night for the first time ever. Let’s preview the action.



When: Fri. Sept. 29; 8pm ET
Where: Champaign, Ill.; Memorial Stadium (60,670)
All-Time Series: Nebraska leads 10-3-1
Last Meeting: Nebraska win 31-16 (2016)
Line: Nebraska (-6)

Desperate may be a harsh word to use when describing the situations of the Illini and Huskers. However, it seems appropriate given the crumbling nature of both programs this season.

Illinois has decided that a youth movement is worth the growing pains in Lovie Smith’s second season at the helm. It’s resulted in not-so-shocking uneven start to the season, including a 47-23 blowout loss at the hands of USF two weeks ago.

Both of these programs being in a state of flux makes for an interesting proposition, but what about the game itself? Let us take an in-depth look at Friday night’s festivities in Champaign, Ill.

1 Burning Question: Can Nebraska Count on QB Tanner Lee?

There’s no secret to Mike Riley’s offensive gameplan — it requires the quarterback to be accurate and smart with the football. So far this season, off-season sensation Tanner Lee has failed in those two key areas.

Lee comes in to this game having thrown a nation-high nine interceptions to just seven touchdowns. He’s also only completing 52.1 percent of his passes. For a guy everyone hyped as the next coming of Joe Montana, Lee hasn’t delivered to say the least. His play is part of the reason the groans have gotten louder in Lincoln.

Illinois defense could be exactly what the doctor ordered though, as they are 83rd nationally in passing defense (248.7 yards per game) and have three interceptions so far. While the INT total could be scary, this could be the perfect game for Lee to find a rhythm and unleash all the potential people saw this offseason.

Should Lee struggle again, Nebraska might be in some big trouble in this one.

2 Key Stats:

184.3: That is the number of rushing yards per game given up by the Illini so far this season. 

Illinois is 96th in the country against the run this season, not exactly great numbers. But, their could be a worse rushing offense to see this week than Nebraska, who is 11th in rushing offense in the Big Ten. However, Illinois should be worried a bit, as the Huskers racked up 197 yards on the ground against a much more stout Rutgers defense last weekend. Can Illinois button up some of the big plays given up or will the Huskers continue to build on last weekend’s positive rushing performance?

194: That is the total yards put up by Rutgers offense last weekend. 

Nebraska’s defense gave up the fewest total yards to an opponent in the last 46 games last weekend. The question is was it all about Rutgers’ offensive ineptitude or an improving Nebraska defense under Bob Diaco? Nebraska gave up a ton of points to Arkansas State and Oregon to open the season, but were much saltier the last two games, giving up just 21 and 17 points respectively. Those numbers, plus the ability to hold a team under 200 total yards are good signs, especially when you have an equally struggling offense to go up against. Something is going to give in this matchup, and it could come down to how the Huskers defense holds up.

3 Key Players:

Bobby Roundtree, DE (Illinois): A sure-fire way to win this game is to get in the head of Huskers QB Tanner Lee. The guy who has shown a propensity to get after the quarterback a lot so far this season has been freshman defensive end Bobby Roundtree. His three sacks leads the team so far. Let’s see if Nebraska’s shuffling offensive line plus Roundtree’s growing knowledge of the college game can equal getting Lee off his game. If so, Illinois is in business in this one.

Chayce Crouch, QB (Illinois): Personally, I’m shocked to see Crouch back behind center after being pulled at halftime of the Illini’s brutal loss to USF. He was an awful 8 of 18 for 76 yards and an interception. Yet, Smith has shown more faith in him than I would’ve, giving him the starting nod after the bye week. It’ll be interesting to see if he responds to the challenge thrown down by the coaching staff or if he will wilt under the pressure.

De’Mornay Pierson-El, WR (Nebraska): Pierson-El has become much more than a dynamic punt and kick returner for the Huskers. He’s got 17 receptions for 210 yards and is tied at the top of the TD list with three so far this season. Illinois has had some struggles in the pass game defensively, and this would be a perfect time to showcase the speed and leadership to get the Huskers over the finish line.


While the Huskers have been underwhelming to say the least this season, Illinois has been downright brutal while it tries to see what it has with some young players on both sides of the ball. That experiment didn’t work out against USF very well and it won’t again tonight. For all the struggles of the Huskers, they have a massive talent and experience advantage and I expect Tanner Lee to wake up in this one. Illinois offense also struggles as Bob Diaco’s tutelage continues to pay off.

Nebraska 31, Illinois 17

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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