Illinois at Nebraska: Preview and Predictions

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The facts: 11 a.m., ESPNU, 560-AM.

The records: Illinois 3-1, 0-0 Big Ten; Nebraska 3-1, 0-0.

The line: Nebraska by 9½.

The story line: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini was full of compliments for the Illini this week. These two programs haven’t met since the Huskers joined the Big Ten, but Pelini gave the Illini a perfectly healthy diagnosis anyway.

“They have good talent. They have good skill,” he said. “All the pieces are in place to move forward.”

Move forward to where, he didn’t say. Presumably, he didn’t mean to an upset victory in Lincoln.

Look, it’s silly to say the Illini have all the pieces in place. Defensively, they’ve really struggled with a front that isn’t creating pressure on passers and a secondary that’s young and void of big plays. Offensively, the Illini line has been up and down.

But the Huskers have been far from perfect themselves — not just in 2013, but throughout Pelini’s five-plus seasons in Lincoln. Pelini is an upset loss on Saturday from feeling extreme heat from the Big Red fan base. Quite the contrary for Tim Beckman and Illinois, who are under little to no pressure to win this game. Illini fans surely would be pleased with, and encouraged by, another competitive outing.

This game was expected to be, among other, less intriguing story lines, a battle of fifth-year senior quarterbacks Taylor Martinez and Nathan Scheelhaase, each of whom is in his fourth season as a starter. A wicked case of turf toe, however, has sidelined Martinez. Starting in his place will be redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong. He’ll be backed up by senior Ron Kellogg III, who Pelini said will also play.

Take a look here at highlights from Nebraska’s victory over South Dakota State last weekend. Between them, Armstrong and Kellogg took all the snaps.

Five predictions:

1. Armstrong will tuck the ball and run every bit as deliberately as Martinez would have. Even though there’s slightly less of a downfield passing threat with Armstrong in the game, his runs will be highly productive. The Illini haven’t looked very good against mobile QBs.

2. Illini running back Josh Ferguson will have another very good game. Against the Huskers’ pass rush, Ferguson has the chance to be a huge weapon in the screen game. He has displayed all season how dangerous he is after the catch. Ferguson’s 21.8 yards per reception leads the Big Ten.

3. Scheelhaase will have to use his legs more than he did in any of the first four games. This stage might be too big for Aaron Bailey, but Scheelhaase is an experienced and effective runner. Some early designed quarterback runs will pay dividends for the Illini.

4. Terrific Nebraska cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste have combined for seven interceptions in four games — or seven more than all of Illinois’ cornerbacks have had. Scheelhaase has to stay away from that pair. That should mean slot receivers Martize Barr, Steve Hull and Miles Osei will see a bunch of balls head their way. And, again, Ferguson.

5. The Huskers start four seniors along the offensive line. They’re a big, talented unit that doesn’t give up sacks. Given the Illini’s impotent pass rush, defensive coordinator Tim Banks will have to send a lot of blitzes if he wants to test the inexperienced Armstrong’s decision-making. It’s dangerous but probably worth trying. Otherwise, Armstrong will have all day to throw before the coverage eventually breaks down or he embarks on easy scrambles that move the chains.

Greenberg’s pick: Even with Martinez out, it’ll be Nebraska, 37-30.

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