Hot Reads: Huskers Have to Have an Answer for Illini Pass Rush
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: Huskers Have to Have an Answer for Illini Pass Rush

September 18, 2019

Big Ten defenses created quite a bit of havoc over the first three weeks of the season. That was mostly nonconference play, with the stray Iowa-Rutgers and Ohio State-Indiana in there, but still. If you look at havoc rate right now, Big Ten teams are owning the top of the rankings.

Ohio State is leading the country with a forced fumble, pass defended or tackle for loss on 27.4% of its plays. Michigan State ranks second in this measure of negative plays, Nebraska 17th, Penn State 18th and Wisconsin 19th.

There's one other team in the top-20 as well––Illinois at No. 6.

The interesting thing here––and perhaps very interesting for Nebraska––is that Illinois is there almost exclusively thanks to tackles for loss, which includes sacks. The Illini rank 44th nationally in takeaway opportunities, which is a tally of the first two legs of havoc rate. The forced fumbles and passes defended numbers are just solid.

But the TFL total is great. Illinois ranks second nationally there. Defensive end Oluwole Betiku is tied for the national lead with six sacks through three games. That's what could await Broc Bando if he has to play in place of injured left tackle Brenden Jaimes on Saturday.

This might be the most important question the Huskers have to answer in this game: How will they keep the Illini out of their backfield?

Betiku, who went from Nigeria to a 5-star prospect and USC signee in little over two years, has been excellent through three games. After Week 2, Pro Football Focus rated him as the top edge pass rusher in the country based on production.

Eastern Michigan, however, found a way to slow him down. Betiku managed a sack in the loss last Saturday, but that was his only tackle for a loss and the box score listed him with only one other QB hurry (though those are consistently measured inconsistently). Illinois head coach Lovie Smith, without mentioning Betiku by name, noted the impact it had on the Illini as the secondary struggled against the Eagles.

"Its very hard, when you're not getting pressure," Smith said. "You can send more guys. We did it a few times and we got burned a little bit from that. Eventually it just comes down to one-on-one game and you need to be able to cover. We've covered better than we covered this past week. We will do things a lot better than we did."

Keep a close eye on this. Nebraska's offensive line struggled in the second half of the Colorado game, allowing six sacks, as the Buffs made some exotic adjustments to their blitz game. Illinois will go into this game hoping it doesn't have to be extra to generate a pass rush. When that was the case last week, EMU hit for seven explosive passing plays on 37 attempts (18.9%), including back-to-back 23-yard gains on the final drive that set up the game-winning field goal.

Nebraska's plenty capable of inflicting that damage through the passing game. It will need to keep Adrian Martinez clean, and deal with Betiku, to do it. 

The Grab Bag

  • You need to be reading this personnel breakdowns from Jacob Padilla each week. Here he looks at the Huskers’ use of 12 personnel against NIU. (Premium)
  • Huge match tonight for Nebraska volleyball. One where you wouldn’t want to mess with altering any superstitions.
  • Nebraska’s defense has been asked to carry a heavy load through three games and that’s just fine with the Blackshirts. (Premium)
  • Defensive end Regen Terry appears to be high on the Huskers’ list. He talked about his recent visit with recruiting analyst Greg Smith. (Premium)

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