500 Words on Illinois

Best guess at a record when the Illini face Nebraska:

How’s 2-2 sound? Illinois doesn’t truly have to go on the road until facing Nebraska on October 5 and should be able to beat Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio) at home. Cincinnati and Washington (in Chicago)? Those are both likely losses but it’s not completely crazy to think the Illini could maybe win one of them.

The one player you simply must know:

Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is the player most would have expected to see in this spot each of past two years but there’s a chance he won’t even be the starter come September after holding that spot since he was a redshirt freshman. Instead, focus on senior linebacker Jonathan Brown. As a sophomore in 2011, Brown was a second-team All-Big Ten pick but his numbers dropped significantly in year one under new head coach Tim Beckman. Illinois desperately needs to improve its rush defense in 2013 and Brown can help in that regard if he returns to form. Should he do that, Brown is right up there among the conference’s best and that’s saying something because the Big Ten is lousy with good linebackers.

How’s the match-up for Nebraska?:

This is becoming something of a trend early in 2013 as Illinois is yet another team that will hope to pass its way past Nebraska. Traditionally under Bo Pelini, that’s easier said than done but this is new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s bread-and-butter. As the head coach at Western Michigan for the past eight years, Cubit grew into something of a passing game guru and that’s the direction Illinois is headed in 2013. They’ll try to throw it around against the Huskers whether it makes sense or not.

Defensively, Illinois wasn’t quite as bad as its 2-10 record suggested. It wasn’t good by any means, but maybe not the horror show one might expect. The Illini’s total and passing defense numbers weren’t that bad, but that hardly matters if they can’t slow down what should be a multi-faceted Husker rushing attack. The strength of Illinois’ defense is at linebacker with the aforementioned Brown and returning starter Mason Monheim, but the Illini only have one starter back in both the secondary and on the defensive line. That doesn’t bode well against what might be the Big Ten’s best offense.

Final verdict:

Beckman barely escaped 2012 with his job, no small feat for a first-year head coach. If things go poorly, this could be Beckman’s last year in Champaign and he didn’t get any breaks from the schedule rotation. The Illini draw Nebraska, Michigan State and Northwestern from the Legends Division but at least they get Ohio State and Wisconsin at home this season if that matters. (It shouldn’t.) There’s a remote chance that Illinois comes out extraordinarily fired up for the conference opener and hangs around in this game. The more likely scenario is that it feels exactly like the 11 a.m. game that it is. Nebraska methodically builds a lead over Illinois and nobody really notices the score as anything unusual by the evening.


Nebraska 31 Illinois 14

(Photo credit: University of Illinois Athletics)