Photo Credit: Eric Francis

The Huskers’ Season-Opener Against Illinois Means a Lot

July 10, 2021

Nebraska is only weeks away from opening fall camp for the new year, and as the clock ticks closer to the 2021 season, we’re giving brief looks at each opponent on the schedule for the Huskers. Illinois is up first. 

The Boring Info

Time: This game is set for a noon CT kickoff on FOX on August 28. It’ll be a Week 0 game for the two schools, and the only intra-Power Five clash for that opening weekend. 

Line: The Huskers are favored by 8.5. They are 2-3 against the spread in their last five games against the Illini.

Records: Illinois went 2-6 last season and fired its head coach. Nebraska went 3-5.

Series history: Nebraska leads the all-time series with a record of 13-4-1. The Huskers are 6-2 against this side since joining the conference, but the last few meetings haven’t been particularly comfortable. NU lost the last meeting 41-23, eked out a 42-38 road win in 2019, and gave up 35 points and almost 400 rushing yards in a home win in 2018.

What This One Means

Probably a whole lot. 

For starters, it’s the opening salvo of Nebraska’s season. After the spring, there was a noticeable sense of urgency from the coaching staff and justifiably so. Everyone is intimately aware of the Huskers’ record since Scott Frost took over as head coach. Though this game was going to have a bit more pomp—initially announced as an oversees tilt between the two in Dublin, Ireland, but moved back stateside due to the COVID-19 pandemic—it’ll still carry a ton of weight for a Husker team wanting to start the new year on the right foot. 

Opening against Big Ten competition is a tough task, even if it’s against a team breaking in a new head coach, but Nebraska will have the added pressure of knowing it really and truly needs the game to go its way. Fordham and Buffalo offer varying degrees of comfort in the weeks that follow, but a trip to Oklahoma looms three weeks after this one is played. Should Nebraska enter that game 2-1, it won’t feel good. It needs to be 3-0, and it would seem most everyone knows that. 

The schedule from that point on gives no quarter. If Nebraska is halfway to a bowl game through the first three weeks, it’ll be happy. 

Maybe more importantly, so will outsiders. Nebraska wants and needs positive momentum, and part of that means reinvigorating a fanbase that hasn’t seen a winning season since 2016. If the worst-case scenario comes to pass and Nebraska is coming out of the tunnel against Fordham at 0-1, the environment will be. . . interesting, to say the least.

The other reason: NU got embarrassed by the Illini last year. 

Particularly on defense, expect the Huskers to want to prove a point with this date on the calendar. In Memorial Stadium last season, the Illini jumped out to a 31-10 early third-quarter lead on Nebraska and dropped a 41-piece for the game. NU’s offense turned the ball over freely but this was one of the rare occasions last season when the defense didn’t bail them out. 

Illinois averaged 5.7 yards per rush (adjusted for sacks) while totaling nearly 300 yards on the ground. Quarterback Brandon Peters helped lead an offense that went 11-for-17 on third down. Illinois scored the most points it had in a first half of Big Ten play (28) in a decade and ripped off a success rate of 50%, the third-highest mark for an Illinois team in a game since 2018. And there was the fake punt.

Nebraska made strides on the defensive side of the football last season, the Illinois game notwithstanding. It was more physical at the point of attack and better at stopping the run because of it. It was more sound in the backend as the year went on, jumping drastically in third-down efficiency. It looked more like the Blackshirts fans came to expect from the Huskers. 

But it wasn’t immune to lapses in concentration. Sometimes those were long lapses. On one particular November Saturday, it lasted about three and a half hours. NU talked about atonement after that game, and even though the Illinois team that it faces to start this season will be coached by a different man patrolling the sideline, it’ll need to exorcise some demons.

The Guy to Know

Offensively, we’ll see what Bret Bielema’s imprint is—his Wisconsin days featured a traditional brand of power run, but his new OC in Champaign came from more of a spread run scheme—but defensively there are a few things you can peg as constants in that front seven. Jake Hansen at linebacker is reliable. 

Owen Carney Jr. as an edge rusher is potentially explosive. The 6-foot-3, 265-pounder has prototypical size and matched that with the corresponding production last season. He had seven tackles for loss and five sacks, as well as a fumble forced. 

Nebraska is going to have two youngsters starting at tackle, potentially a first-time starter at guard, and potentially a first-time starter in the backfield next to Adrian Martinez. Nebraska was statistically poor at protecting Martinez on standard downs last season (6.3% sack rate allowed, 87th nationally) and Illinois was one of the best at getting to the quarterback on standard downs (7.3% sack rate, 19th). 

The Number to Know

Illinois has 43 takeaways in its last 21 games played. 

Nebraska has 39 giveaways in its last 20 games played. 

Frost has led Husker teams against the Illini three times, and in those games the Huskers have turned the ball over twice (2018), four times (2019), and five times (2020). 

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