Raise your hand if you had this Big Ten opener as a game to circle on Nebraska’s schedule. I certainly didn’t.
In our 2013 football yearbook, I had the Illini going 0-8 in conference play. That seems highly unlikely now that Illinois has brought in Bill Cubit to run the offense rather than split up play-calling duties by down. (Yes, they really did that last year.) The Illini enter the game with the same 3-1 record as Nebraska and, as well see in a minute, a pretty favorable statistical comparison to the Huskers.
Should we have seen this Illinois renaissance coming? Maybe. The Illini’s five-year trajectory makes it seem less shocking than it actually has been.
Illinois under Ron Zook was a tough team to figure out. Zook brought talent to Champaign but, outside of the 2007 trip to the Rose Bowl, had relatively little to show for it. In Zook’s four years after that surprise Rose Bowl trip, the final four years of his tenure, Illinois was below its expected win total each season. Few things will get you fired faster than failing to meet expectations, even at a school were those expectations are relatively modest.
Enter Tim Beckman. Illinois looked pretty miserable while going 2-10 last year, but, unlike Zook, those two wins were at least about exactly what could’ve been expected. So the through line for Illinois football looks something like this: Beckman, with a few remaining Zook recruits who all won fewer games than expected, blends that talent with a heavy influx of junior college players and goes through a rough but fair first year and then picks up momentum early in his second season.
Does that explain why Illinois has, arguably, already exceeded expectations this season? Somewhat, but the addition of Cubit is still probably the biggest difference.
It’s not ideal, but at this point we’re using 2013 FBS stats only, which makes things somewhat noisy. That’s only three games each for Illinois and Nebraska but before we play the “but who have the Illini played?” card, consider this: According to the latest Sagarin rankings, Illinois has played a more difficult schedule (103rd nationally) than Nebraska (121st). That’s because Sagarin has Washington ranked ahead of UCLA, Cincinnati ahead of Wyoming and Southern Illinois ahead of South Dakota State. (Southern Miss is better than Miami (Ohio), however.)
As has been the case since early 2012, Nebraska’s biggest advantage remains the run game. But Illinois’ run defense isn’t terrible. The Illini are giving up 4.68 yards per carry against FBS opponents this year — less than 10 percent below the national average — despite facing two top-30 rushing teams in Cincinnati and Washington. This specific match-up is way closer than I would’ve anticipated three weeks ago. But it’s not the most surprising stat here.
That designation belongs to Illinois’ current rushing average. The Illini were terrible in the run game last year (3.44 yards per carry against FBS opponents) but is currently averaging 5.38. That’s the oft-ignored benefit of Cubit’s pass-heavy offense — it’s opened up the run game in ways that weren’t there last season. Illinois is running the ball in creative ways too early this season. Three different wide receivers have carried the ball for Illinois this year and Ryan Lankford and Devin Church both already have rushing touchdowns. And it’s all happening with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase averaging half as many carries as he did back when he was considered a running quarterback and one of the Illini’s only worthwhile offensive options as a freshman and sophomore.
Nebraska still has an offense that should give Illinois problems. The Illini are particularly poor in pass defense, which is an interesting wrinkle with Tommy Armstrong playing quarterback instead of Taylor Martinez. That should play to the Huskers’ advantage (if the weather cooperates), but the burden of proof in this game still resides with the Blackshirts.
Can they stop an Illinois offense that’s currently more than 20 percent better than average on a per play basis?
HOW YOU’LL KNOW NEBRASKA’S IN GOOD SHAPE
Of all the defensive questions facing Nebraska early this season, the hardest one to explain might be suddenly suspect pass defense. This has always been Bo Pelini’s calling card and, with a seemingly limitless number of veteran cornerbacks to choose from, it seemed reasonable to expect that to continue in 2013. It hasn’t. The Huskers are currently allowing a 62.3 completion percentage against FBS foes, nearly five percent worse than Pelini’s previous low in 2008. Meanwhile, Illinois enters with a 61.5 completion percentage thanks to its revamped passing game. Good defense starts with the run, but in this case if the Huskers secondary looks more like it has over the previous four seasons that would be a very good sign for Nebraska.
WHEN TO WORRY
Based on the weather forecast, Armstrong at quarterback, and Nebraska’s general strength, I’d expect the Huskers to come out with a heavy focus on the run. While Illinois is hovering around average in run defense, this is still a big ask for the Illini on the road. Washington, with the 11th-ranked rush offense in the country, ran for 5.46 yards per carry on 50 attempts against Illinois three weeks ago. Nebraska is currently ranked 13th nationally and if the Huskers aren’t able to move it on the ground against this group, that’s a serious cause for concern. Then you’re asking Armstrong, in likely adverse weather conditions against the best players he’s yet seen, to win it for you. That’s not impossible, but it’s not ideal either.
Illinois currently ranks 21st nationally with 27 plays of 20 yards or more this season. Nebraska’s defense has allowed 25 in four games, 97th nationally.
In four years as a head coach (three at Toledo), Tim Beckman is 0-7 against ranked teams.
Orange and blue — two great tastes that taste great together. Shame the Illini are still using an old Nike template with needless torso piping and truncated pants stripes, but that’s still not enough to make these things a total wreck. Illinois did well by itself by getting rid of the old Giants-esque ‘ILLINOIS’ on the helmets in favor of a simple, strong ‘I’. The traditional orange helmet is yards better than the matte-blue option and I’d expect to see the former on the field this Saturday as it’s what the Illini have used in three of four games this year. (Bonus points for the state-shaped merit stickers, too.) Now the question is white, orange, or blue pants? Mark my preference as “blue.”
(Photo courtesy of Illinois Sports Information)