When Illinois takes the field against Nebraska on Saturday, Bill Busch and everyone else knows it’ll run the football often.
The Fighting Illini lead the Big Ten in rushing attempts, and top running back Chase Brown leads the nation in both attempts and yards.
That presents a challenge for a Husker defense which has struggled against the run this year, ranking last in the conference in total yards, yards per carry and touchdowns given up on the ground.
Regardless of those numbers, Busch acknowledged at Wednesday’s press conference that completely shutting down Illinois’ run game is an unrealistic goal. Brown rushed for over 125 yards each of the last three games against Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, which all rank in the top 30 in the nation in rushing defense.
Rather, the defensive coordinator said the Huskers want to avoid the big runs, and limit Illinois on a situational basis.
“They’re not going to come in here and rush for four yards,” Busch said. “You got to be able to control the run. You have to be able to control it on certain situations, you have to be able to make sure you don’t have big plays and breakouts. And then when we have our opportunities to be able to make the tackles we got to be able to keep it to the minimum.”
That’s no easy task either, as Busch said Illinois does everything with a “structurally sound plan” and blocks well for its running backs. He said the way the Illini use their tight ends gives them some complexity, as they line up in a variety of ways. Illinois puts an extra offensive tackle on the field sometimes too, further complicating run defense.
“Their multiplicity comes from making run gaps and run fits extremely hard,” he said. “That’s one of the things that they do very, very well.”
When it came to Brown specifically, Busch praised his ability to fight for extra yardage as his best attribute.
“He has breakout runs and he can make you miss, but the biggest strength that Chase has is that he’s able to turn three-yard runs into six-yard runs,” Busch said. “That’s the number one thing that stands out the most to me, is you look at the film, and it should be second-and-7 and its second-and-4.”
He also mentioned Brown’s durability. He leads the Big Ten in carries by 43 rushes, and had 41 against Minnesota. However, Busch said he always seems fresh, and hasn’t seen him limp off the field once.
Health plays a factor for the Nebraska defense going into the game as well. Head coach Mickey Joseph announced yesterday that captain and starting linebacker Nick Henrich will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury. Busch called it a “kick in the gut.”
“He’s a great player, he’s a better person, he’s a better leader,” he said. “I mean, Nick Henrich, he’s a game changer for us just to have around. The room changes when he walks in. And the amazing thing is the room still changes when he walks in on crutches, that just tells you what a great human that he is.”
The Huskers will also be getting a couple players back from injury this week. Safety Marques Buford Jr. missed the second half against the Boilermakers, but is at full health now, according to Busch. Luke Reimer, the team’s leading tackler, will play this week after missing the Purdue game.
Busch said he would’ve loved to have had the linebacker available in that game, and he offers his own kind of leadership at that spot.
“Reimer’s also a leader, he leads a little bit more by how he plays, which is fine,” Busch said. “That also is a quality of leadership.”
The run game won’t be the only thing the Huskers focus on defensively — Tommy Devito has completed 70% of his passes this season for 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions — but the ground game has the potential to be a difference-maker. More than any one part of the game, Busch said he wants the team to continue to match the opponent’s physicality.
“We did a very good job in the first couple of games when I was in charge of the defense, we had that change over, didn’t do as well against Purdue but we have a great plan for them to really get done,” he said. “We have to be able to match them, because they’re going to test your will at all times.”