There was a moment early this season when I entertained the idea that Illinois might be better than most imagined in its first year under Coach Lovie Smith. This was after the first game, a larger-than-expected win over Murray State, and a reminder to never make assumptions — even cautious ones — based on one game.
Since then the Illini have lost by about the expected margin against North Carolina and Western Michigan, putting us back to where we started with Illinois: It has some good pieces on defense and can challenge teams that way, but the offense isn’t efficient enough at this point.
THE LINE: Nebraska opened as a 21-point favorite and the football predicting machines are seeing, on average, a 20-point win for the Huskers at home. If you were looking for line value here, look elsewhere.
THE RANKINGS: The Huskers’ 11-point win over Northwestern didn’t do much for Nebraska’s rankings. It dropped in three of the five we’re looking at this season, but took a nice jump in S&P+, which is factoring in preseason power less and less with each week. That’s still a pretty tight cluster, so the Huskers’ rankings here feel pretty solid. There’s a bit of a bigger gap for Illinois, which happens the further down the rankings you go as a Power 5 team.
Here are six stats to keep an eye on in the Illinois-Nebraska game:
1. Who Gets the Big Gains on the Ground?
Mike Riley said following the Foster Farms Bowl that he wanted an efficient running game that was good enough to rank in the top three of the Big Ten. Check and check after four games. One thing the Huskers haven’t been through this opening stretch, however, is explosive on the ground. Nebraska ranks ninth nationally in rushing plays of 10-plus yards –Riley’s definition of an explosive run — but is merely average at going for 20-plus.
Enter Illinois, which has given up some long runs through three games. If there’s a match up where the Husker running backs could have some fun, this might be the one.
This is one of those symmetrical stats match ups in that the one thing the Illinois offense is perhaps best at is ripping of really long gains. That’s not really an offensive identity so much as a quirk, especially when we’re only three games into the season. Keep an eye on running back Kendrick Foster, however. He’s averaging more than 9 yards per carry so far. The Illini’s best bet for beating Nebraska is to hit for a couple of big gains on the ground, particularly after a pretty substandard tackling game from the Huskers last week.
Nebraska should be able to move the ball, even if the biggest gains don’t come on the ground, so we’ll put this one on the Blackshirts.
Stat to Watch: Illinois’ chunk rushing plays (10-plus yards). (Number to hit: 5)
2. Protect the Pocket
Illinois leads the Big Ten at 4.33 sacks per game. There are two things that are interesting about that.
One, defensive end Dawuane Smoot is the real deal, but he doesn’t have any of the Illini’s 13 sacks this season. Five other defensive linemen have combined for 11.5 sacks, however, which indicates that Smoot’s presence is certainly being felt.
Two, according to Football Study Hall the Illini rank first nationally in sack rate on standard downs. Standard downs are, well, standard, meaning the offense is on schedule and theoretically has its full play book at its disposal. That Illinois is picking up sacks in those specific situations implies that there is some pretty good talent up front and the Illini staff isn’t afraid to turn it loose. Everyone wants a good pass rush without blitzes for a reason — it’s rare to get and a big advantage.
Nebraska’s offensive line has had some difficulty at time staying assignment sound, mostly against run blitzes, but it has only given up three sacks through four game (hat tip: Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s mobility). Still, Illinois appears to have the athletes to challenge the Huskers up front.
Stat to Watch: Nebraska’s sacks allowed. (Number to hit: 3)
3. Off Schedule
No team has thrown more often on standard downs than Illinois this season. That curve ball hasn’t helped the Illini stay on schedule very well, however. Illinois’ standard-downs success rate of 39 percent ranks 117th nationally. That will be worth watching.
This Nebraska pass defense, while undoubtedly better this season, will still yield some yards. In fact, the Huskers’ defense may be so wary of the deep ball after last year — a legitimate concern and wise strategic adaptation in my mind — that the underneath routes are what Nebraska is willing to give up. There’s a limit to how much you can give up, however.
If Illinois is staying on schedule in this one — and that most likely comes via the pass based on past tendencies — the Huskers probably need to tighten up a little bit. That makes standard downs success rate a good number to monitor on Saturday.
Stat to Watch: Illinois’ standard downs success rate. (Number to hit: 40 percent)
3 More to Monitor
Stuff Rate: About one in five of Nebraska’s runs this season have been stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. That ranks 84th nationally and Illinois should present an interesting challenge on Saturday. If Nebraska doesn’t have a ton of dead-end runs, that’s always a good sign but particularly so this week.
Third Down Conversions: Illinois’ defense has been strangely vulnerable on passing downs, precisely when the defense should have an advantage. That’s bad news against a team like Nebraska, which is, for the second season in a row, pretty efficient when behind the chains. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf seems to excel in those situations and having a play-making quarterback doesn’t hurt. Third-down conversion rate is always important, but if Nebraska were to take a major dip from its 48 percent conversion rate in this game, it’s a pretty good sign the offense isn’t firing on all cylinders.
The Interception Race: Forty-four quarterbacks have thrown fewer than two interceptions so far this season, including Armstrong and Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt (three games played). Lunt is a pretty precise passer having thrown just six interceptions a year ago, but the Huskers are ball hawking this year. Nebraska’s nine interceptions this season is tied for second nationally, so who blinks first? Lunt or the Blackshirts’ secondary? That will be a fun one to watch.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.