Over the past three seasons, Nebraska’s best weapon on offense has been the run game. It hasn’t always felt that way, but with more volatility in other aspects of the game, gaining yards on the ground stands out as a relative constant. The Huskers have ranked in the top 20 nationally in rushing success rate in two of the past three seasons. The 2020 offense ranked 14th with a rushing success rate of 49.0%
Illinois, under previous coach Lovie Smith, was never particularly good at stopping the run. His Illini never ranked better than 11th in the Big Ten in yards per rush allowed and last year’s group ended the season 116th in rushing success rate at 49.7%.
That wasn’t how last year’s game went, however. Nebraska ran for more than 200 yards, but needed 44 carries to do it and its success rate was the second-lowest of the season at 42.9%. Illinois won 41-23. Sometimes strengths look like weaknesses and weaknesses look like strengths for a game. (The Huskers’ five turnovers didn’t help.)
Riding the run game is probably still Nebraska’s path of least resistance as it beings the 2021 season, though adding some big plays in the passing game is probably the easiest way to turbocharge an offense that has yet to look like the fast-paced, full-throttle Scott Frost offense everyone expected. The Huskers’ defense is closer to Erik Chinander’s blueprint, and, with some of the most returning experience in the country, should be trending upward. But there are some problem areas to fix there, too, particularly when it comes to pass defense.
Nebraska will try to smooth out some of those bumps from past seasons in the first college football game of the 2021 season, and it’s a pretty high-stakes game, too, as observers continue to watch the Huskers closely, searching for some sort of direction. Season-openers can be pretty messy anyway, but add to that the mystery of Illinois––a new staff, new schemes, not much of it on tape but plenty of experienced talent to run it.
How do the Huskers get out of Champaign with a win? What do they have to do well? What must they avoid doing poorly? Who are the key players to watch?
We cover all of those topics in this week’s I-80 Preview, Huskers-Illini edition.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.