Nebraska welcomes a ranked team into the confines of Memorial Stadium for the second time this year on Saturday. No. 17 Illinois comes to Lincoln for the Huskers’ first home game in four weeks.
The Illini are on a five-game winning streak coming off a bye week. Before the week off they knocked off Minnesota in a convincing 26-14 home win. They’re a formidable team that’s garnered a lot of national attention for a stunning defense and the nation’s top running back. Nebraska interim head coach Mickey Joseph called for increased physicality in all three phases ahead of Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. kickoff. Each phase poses a matchup challenge.
Illinois leans heavily on running back Chase Brown. The junior running back has rushed for 1,059 yards so far this season, the most of any back in the country. He’s passed 100 yards in every game this season but has scored half of his four touchdowns since the season-opening win over Wyoming.
One of Brown’s most noticeable traits is fighting for extra yards. Whether it’s muscling through the first tackle or leaning forward for an extra 2 yards, Brown extends plays in often unnoticed ways to keep the Illinois offense moving forward.
“You look at the film and it should be second-and-7, and it’s second-and-4,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Bill Busch said Wednesday. “That’s the biggest challenge probably going on with the run fits, tackling him and getting him wrapped up.”
Sixth-year starting quarterback Tommy DeVito is growing his role at quarterback. He’s patient and calculated in his throws, tossing just two interceptions in 196 throws so far.
“He’s really good when they run the football, but he won’t make mistakes,” Joseph said earlier this week. “And that’s what we’re going against again, that guy under the center that’s not going to make mistakes.”
DeVito spreads the passing offense among three predominant receivers. Pat Bryant, Isaiah Williams and Brian Hightower all have at least 300 receiving yards.
Illinois ranks among the country’s best defenses. That starts up front. The Illini rely on their own physicality to move the line of scrimmage. They sometimes give up yardage but teams struggle to find consistency, and points, against the defense. Sophomore defensive lineman Jer’Zhan Newton anchors the Illinois defense with 37 tackles and eight quarterback hurries.
“They mainly run that odd-front defense, and they’ve done a really good job this year at stopping the run, especially in the Big Ten West,” Nebraska offensive lineman Turner Corcoran said. “You’ve got to win up front if you want to be able to run the ball. They’ve done a good job with that and they’ve won some games doing it.”
Nebraska offensive coordinator Mark Whipple saw Illinois’ strengths on tape in the get-out situations. Third and fourth down, as well as in the red zone.
“They’re really good in the red zone, they’re very opportunistic,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Mark Whipple said. “They’re really good on third down. … They run well in the back end and take care of third downs. And they hold onto the ball.”
Opponents are 26 for 98 (26.53%) on third-down conversions and 2 for 9 (22.22%) on converting fourth down.
The Illinois secondary is especially opportunistic with 12 interceptions this season. Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson said that number could easily be between 15 and 20.
“Not a lot of teams have had success passing the ball,” Thompson said, “but we have good receivers and explosive players on offense, so I’m excited about the matchup and the opportunity. We’ll be ready to go.”
Senior defensive back Jartavius Martin and junior defensive back Devon Witherspoon are tough corners to get around. Martin has 25 solo tackles with eight PBUs and two interceptions, while Witherspoon has 11 PBUs and one interception.
Hugh Robertson has yet to punt a ball into the end zone this season. Robertson averages 38.06 yards so far on 31 punts, 17 of which were fair caught and nine went inside the 20.
The Illini juggled kickers this season and now rely on Fabrizio Pinton for field goal duties. Pinton is 7-for-7 with a long of 37 this year. Caleb Griffin started the season as Illinois’ kicker but went 7 for 11 up until the Wisconsin game. He is 2-of-5 on field goals 40 yards or longer.
Williams is Illinois’ top punt returner with 13 returns this season with a long of 24 yards. Peyton Vining is the Illini’s best kickoff returner with a long of 43 yards so far.