LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska avenged one of its 2015 Big Ten losses over the weekend by winning at Northwestern. On Saturday, the Huskers will get an opportunity to avenge another one as Illinois will roll into Lincoln.
One play from last year’s 14-13 loss in Champaign sticks out to defensive coordinator Mark Banker.
“I remember a really deep pass over the top of our secondary that set up the winning score,” Banker said. “That’s what I remember about [Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt]. Watching him on tape, he has a really high completion average. This team seemed to start out pretty strong and over the last two games things kind of went sideways on them. I think he’s a good quarterback. Big strong guy, good accurate arm, a good corps of receivers.”
Linebackers coach Trent Bray said the Huskers are expecting a little of everything from the Illinois offense on Saturday.
“They do kind of everything,” Bray said. “They’re kind of like us in the fact that they’ll do some spread stuff, they’ll get under center as well and do some two-backs. So they kind of have just a mixed bag of a lot of different stuff.”
Bray elaborated on the challenges the Illinois offense will present.
“They have a good running back, a really good player,” Bray said. “They are big up front; they’ve had some juggling that they’ve done which is hard on those guys, but I expect them to be a lot better than what we’ve seen. They had a bye week. I’m sure they cleaned up a lot of that stuff and focused on that. I’m sure we’re going to see a team that will come out and play. They’ve lost a couple games but North Carolina’s a good team and so is Western Michigan . . . We have to come out and play like we’re capable of.”
Limiting big plays will be a big factor for the Huskers on Saturday as Illinois is tied with Nebraska atop the Big Ten with five plays of 50 or more yards.
“[It’s important to stop big plays in] every game, because we only gave two really big plays [against Northwestern],” Banker said. “One run and one on the pass and they were both touchdowns. Other than that, they didn’t hurt us, but you can’t do it. It’s not even a matter of limiting them. You just don’t want to give up a big play. Always make a team drive and you know chances are, if you get lined up correctly and you just execute the basics of your assignment, you’re going to have a chance to make a play of some sort and make the offense earn that particular play.”
The long run, a 42-yard touchdown by quarterback Clay Thorson, is particularly troubling to Bray.
“That one play, you can’t allow that explosive play,” Bray said. “Because when you watch that game, it was really two plays that they got us on. The deep pass and then that long run, which were completely avoidable. That’s the thing is staying in it the whole game and not letting those big plays happen. We limited them to two which is a big improvement from last year, but still, we don’t want any and that’s our goal every week.”
Bray isn’t necessarily looking for perfection from his linebackers, but he does want consistency.
“There’s never going to be a perfect game, but it’s happened at times,” Bray said. “There are stretches where it’s really good and there was a lot of good stuff in Northwestern. Then there are times where we’re a little bit out of our fit and they get 7, 8 yards. Those are the things, just consistency and always being there and always doing it with a physical and violent attitude.”
>> After an up-and-down sophomore season, Chris Jones has turned himself into Nebraska’s top cover corner as a junior and cornerbacks coach Brian Stewart said is “doing a great job” in that role.
“I think we looked up the first two games he was averaging something like an interception or pass break-up every four plays or something like that,” Stewart said. “He’s been very productive, and that’s kind of what we talked about this summer – a lot of ball production by him and by the whole group. That’s what we’ve been asking of those guys.”
Stewart said he saw things click for Jones when it became clear that he was going to be counted on as a starter.
“The main thing that I see from him is just a different focus,” Stewart said. “Once he knew he was going to be a starter, once he knew he was going to be on an island at times knowing our defense, it was important to him to do things right footwork-wise, alignment-wise, stance-wise, and he’s been doing those things.”
>> Stewart once coached in the NFL, and during that time he got to know new Illinois coach Lovie Smith who coached the Chicago Bears for a long time and was most recently with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“First and foremost, as a defensive coach I thought his guys always played hard, I thought they always knew where they were supposed to be,” Stewart said. “They took a lot pride in knowing their fits and their hustle. As far as a head coach, a guy who leads his team to a Super Bowl as well as the playoffs, it’s one of those, that’s enough said. There are a lot of guys who have been in the NFL, head coach-wise, who haven’t been to the Super Bowl and he did it in a short period of time. That kind of talks to his acumen as a football coach.”
>> Redshirt freshman defensive end Alex Davis continues to get some opportunities to see the field on defense as the coaches are trying to rotate more along the defensive line.
“He plays hard, his pass rush – he’s got a lot of natural to him,” defensive line coach John Parrella said. “With his size and speed, we’re hoping at some point he will become that threat off the corner on third downs. For him, it’s been a process. When you have big 6-foot-6 and 7 players, the hardest part for them is to get that big frame underneath him against a tight end and those things. He’s been, lately, really starting to pick it up. Ross [Dzuris] and Freedom [Akinmoladun] helping him, coming out early and working with him, has really helped.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.