Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Huskers Look to Match Illinois’ Physicality out of Bye Week

October 25, 2022

Nebraska needed to get healthy over the bye week more than anything. Interim head coach Mickey Joseph stated the obvious in Tuesday’s weekly press conference. Players, with a weekend off, returned home or relaxed however they could.

That rest became all the more necessary for Nebraska’s physical challenges ahead. In order to beat physicality, the Huskers have to match physicality, Joseph said.

“We got five games back to back in the tough, physical Big Ten Conference,” Joseph said. “We got to match our opponent’s physicality, starting this week with Illinois.”

Joseph admired Illinois head coach Bret Bielema’s work and described Illinois as physical on both sides of the ball. Joseph faced Bielema on staff at LSU when Bielema was the head coach at Arkansas. The former Wisconsin coach now at Illinois likes a run-first, physical offense. He concentrates on the physicality on both lines.

Then, obviously, the Illini are powered by the nation’s leading rusher, Chase Brown. Quarterback Tommy Devito played well in the Illini’s previous two wins before last week’s bye. No. 17 Illinois is a good football team. The Illini pose a difficult task for the Huskers but one that team is prepared for. Because the Huskers are a great football when they execute in all three phases, Joseph said.

“They like to run the ball, they’re not disguising anything,” linebacker Eteva Mauga-Clements said. “They’re seeing who’s tough, who’s physical.”

Mauga-Clements started against Purdue instead of injured linebacker Luke Reimer. Now that Joseph confirmed team captain Nick Henrich is out for the year with a knee injury, the senior from California will likely get more game reps.

He said the defense acknowledges Illinois’ Brown for the runner he is and give him his due. He runs hard, hits hard and, if nothing else, falls forward to get as much yardage as possible. He’s a tough runner on a team that likes to run first. Nebraska’s only faced two offenses that dedicate as much to the run (Rutgers and Northwestern) but neither of them achieved as much success.

Team captain and junior edge rusher Garrett Nelson likened the current Illinois team to a more old school Wisconsin-style team. They’re physical with offensive linemen and tight ends through man and zonal blocking.

“Understand your opponents physicality and bring it to practice,” Nelson said.

Defensively, Illinois is one of, if not the best in the country. The Illini are first in yardage allowed and fourth in stop rate, preventing opponents from scoring on 81.5 percent of defensive drives. Opponents average 0.74 points per drive against Illinois.

Offensive lineman Turner Corcoran said this is likely the best defense the Huskers have played so far. He noticed while watching film that Illinois is physical up front and, while schematically driven, tries to overpower the offense’s front five with its own five closest to the line.

“They’re really facing their best five guys with whoever they play’s best five guys up front,” Corcoran said. “We’ve got to be really keyed in on our pass technique and our run technique.”

Joseph said during his comments on Tuesday that the Huskers need to get running back Anthony Grant going again. The Huskers’ starting back electrified in the first few games but hasn’t found the same success in recent weeks.

An ability to run the ball could open Illinois’ defense and expose vulnerabilities in the air. Quarterback Casey Thompson saw a lot of man coverage on film and while the Illini have forced 12 interceptions this year that number could easily be between 15 and 20.

“I would say they have good size, good speed and good athleticism,” Thompson said. “I’m sure they’re feeling good  but we like what we have as well and we’re excited about the matchup.”

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