Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Drake’s Takes: Nebraska Kicks Off Tough Final Stretch Against Surging Illinois

October 28, 2022

Heading out of another bye week, Nebraska football enters its final stretch of the season. 

The 3-4 Huskers have five games left to reach bowl contention and fight for a spot atop the messy Big Ten West. 

They will start off that road by facing No. 17 Illinois, the current division leader. 

The Fighting Illini have enjoyed a breakout year, sitting at 6-1 in their second year under head coach Bret Bielema. An early loss to Indiana still stands out, but they’ve made up for it with three straight wins over Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. 

Before those games, this contest appeared to be one that the Huskers could easily take advantage of. Illinois beat Nebraska to open last season, but finished the year 5-7. 

Now, the Illini are a team well set-up to take advantage of the weaknesses that have plagued Nebraska all year. 

They run the ball well, being led by the nation’s top rusher. Quarterback Tommy DeVito might not be a massive game-changer, but he’s efficient. In addition to being first in the conference in rush and pass defense, Illinois averages over three sacks a game and has forced 12 interceptions. 

Essentially, there haven’t been many glaring weaknesses for the Illini so far. There’s a reason they’re ranked as a top 20 team in the nation.

Even at home, beating Illinois will be a tough task for head coach Mickey Joseph’s team. Nebraska’s run defense is one of the biggest concerns, especially as it just gave up 178 yards to Purdue’s Devin Mockobee. The return of linebacker Luke Reimer will help some, but Chase Brown — who has topped 100 rushing yards in every game this year — is set for another big performance. 

And should Brown run wild on the Husker defense on Saturday, the following weeks might not look so different. After Illinois, Nebraska plays Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. Brown, Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim, Michigan’s Blake Corum and Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen are the four running backs in the Big Ten averaging over 100 rushing yards a game. If you’re a fan of running the football, you’ll have a great time watching Nebraska’s opponents down the stretch.

But, as Bill Busch said this week, teams like Illinois racking up rushing yards is inevitable. The goal is more to contain the run, and stop the large gains the Huskers have seen often this year. I’m skeptical of Nebraska’s ability to accomplish that either, but there’s still a path to success.

Brown’s biggest rushing performance came in the loss to Indiana. Looking at that game, a path to beating the Illini becomes a little clearer. It’s worth noting that the last three teams they’ve played haven’t had strong passing offenses to begin with. the Hoosiers relied completely on their passing offense in their win over Illinois, and Nebraska could find itself doing the same. Trey Palmer will likely need to have a busy day once again, along with some other pass-catchers. 

I’d like to see Anthony Grant regain his momentum on the ground, but that might have to wait another week. The Huskers haven’t been the kind of team who can maintain a strong running game against the toughest of the conference’s defenses.

Along with the passing offense, forcing some mistakes from the Illini could also be key. In their lone loss, they lost three fumbles and threw an interception. In the next closest game against Iowa, they fumbled twice and threw another pick. Their ball security was spotless in wins against Wisconsin and Minnesota, though. Nebraska’s defense and special teams units have made big plays in both conference wins, and that may be necessary once again.

On paper, nearly everything about this matchup leans in the favor of Illinois. The most compelling reason for an upset may simply be the unpredictable state of the Big Ten West. If the upset were to happen in Lincoln on Saturday, it’d be massive for Joseph and the team.

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