LINCOLN, Neb. – What once looked like a cushy October schedule for Nebraska might have become more of a challenge.
The way the Cornhuskers’ defense has performed through four games surely has Illinois thinking it could steal a win at Memorial Stadium on Saturday and end its 14-game Big Ten losing streak.
Nebraska (3-1) is 107th nationally in total defense, and no higher than 75th in any major category. Illinois (3-1) has displayed a versatile offense that’s averaging almost 480 yards a game under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit and fourth-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
“It makes things difficult on defenses just because one play we can be in a five-wide set throwing the ball around,” Scheelhaase said, “and the next play we can have three tight ends and two backs in the game, kind of pounding the ball.”
The Huskers allowed 465 yards to FCS South Dakota State in their last game, and used their bye week to shore up deficiencies ranging from missed tackles to attitude.
Coach Bo Pelini said he still sees potential in his defense.
“You don’t build it in a day,” he said.
But his patience has been tested after watching Wyoming amass more than 600 yards in a three-point Nebraska win, the Huskers blow an 18-point lead and lose by 20 to UCLA, and South Dakota State’s Zach Zenner gash his way to 202 yards.
No one expects a low-scoring game. Illinois’ defense has been as bad as Nebraska’s, and the Huskers’ offense is churning out almost 500 yards a game.
Nebraska will start Tommy Armstrong Jr. at quarterback for the second straight game, as Taylor Martinez recovers from a nagging injury to his left big toe. Armstrong was sharp against South Dakota State, but the stakes are now higher for the redshirt freshman.
The Huskers came into the season picked to battle Michigan for a spot in the Big Ten championship game. The October stretch – at home against Illinois and on the road against both Purdue and Minnesota – was expected to be a warm-up for bigger games in November.
Michigan’s recent struggles and Nebraska’s defensive problems have created a wide-open race in the Legends Division.
“I think we can beat any football team that we line up against,” Pelini said. “I also understand that there are a lot of football teams out there that can beat up on us if we don’t take care of us.”