LINCOLN, Neb. — What once looked like a cushy October schedule for Nebraska might have become more of a challenge.
The way the Cornhuskers’ defense has performed through four games surely has Illinois thinking it could steal a win at Memorial Stadium on Saturday and end its 14-game Big Ten losing streak.
Nebraska (3-1) is 107th nationally in total defense and no higher than 75th in any major category. Illinois (3-1) has displayed a versatile offense that’s averaging almost 480 yards a game under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit and fourth-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
“It makes things difficult on defenses just because one play we can be in a five-wide set throwing the ball around,” Scheelhaase said, “and the next play we can have three tight ends and two backs in the game, kind of pounding the ball.”
The Huskers allowed 465 yards to FCS South Dakota State in their last game and used their bye week to shore up deficiencies ranging from missed tackles to attitude.
Coach Bo Pelini said he still sees potential in his defense. “You don’t build it in a day,” he said.
But his patience has been tested after watching Wyoming amass more than 600 yards in a three-point Nebraska win, the Huskers blow an 18-point lead and lose by 20 to UCLA and South Dakota State’s Zach Zenner gash his way to 202 yards.
No one expects a low-scoring game. Illinois’ defense has been as bad as Nebraska’s, and the Huskers’ offense is churning out almost 500 yards a game.
Nebraska will start Tommy Armstrong Jr. at quarterback for the second straight game as Taylor Martinez recovers from a nagging injury to his left big toe. Armstrong was sharp against South Dakota State, but the stakes are now higher for the redshirt freshman.
The Huskers came into the season picked to battle Michigan for a spot in the Big Ten championship game. The October stretch — at home against Illinois and on the road against both Purdue and Minnesota — was expected to be a warm-up for bigger games in November.
Michigan’s recent struggles and Nebraska’s defensive problems have created a wide-open race in the Legends Division.
“I think we can beat any football team that we line up against,” Pelini said. “I also understand that there are a lot of football teams out there that can beat up on us if we don’t take care of us.”
Here are five things to know as Illinois and Nebraska start Big Ten play:
HUSKERS IN BIG TEN: Since it started Big Ten play in 2011, Nebraska has won 12 of 16 regular-season conference games. Penn State and Michigan also are 12-4 over that stretch. No one else has won more than 10. The Huskers go into Saturday’s game on a six-game regular-season conference win streak.
THAT AWFUL STREAK: Last year, Illinois’ 14-game conference losing streak was a hot topic among fans and media. Scheelhaase said he and his teammates have tuned out that talk this year.
“All we know is we’re a 3-1 football team right now headed into conference play, getting to play a team that won their (division) last year.”
NEBRASKA LINEUP CHANGES: David Santos has bumped Josh Banderas from the starting middle linebacker’s job. Corey Cooper has locked up one safety spot, but Pelini didn’t name a starter at the other. Harvey Jackson struggled against South Dakota State and has been pushed by LeRoy Alexander, Andrew Green and Charles Jackson.
RUNNER AND RECEIVER: While Cubit is credited with helping revive Scheelhaase’s career, running back Jason Ferguson also has benefited. Ferguson has rushed 30 times for 196 yards, and he’s the Illini’s leading receiver with 12 catches for 262 yards.
PROTECTING THE QB: Nebraska has allowed just two sacks in four games for a nation-best average of .50. That’s a huge improvement from last year, when the Huskers ranked 105th in sacks allowed after giving up 35 in 14 games (2.5 average).
“It’s a huge emphasis,” offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles said. “Those two sacks still bother us because we want to have zero sacks.”
Game 5 Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers When -- 11 a.m. today Where -- Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb. Records -- Illinois 3-1 overall, 0-0 in the Big Ten Conference; Nebraska 3-1 overall, 0-0 in the Big Ten. Rankings -- neither team is rated in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll, but Nebraska is receiving votes. On TV -- ESPNU On the radio -- Fighting Illini Radio Network, including WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1. Pregame show starts at 10 a.m. Series history -- Nebraska holds a 7-2-1 advantage over Illinois, including 59-14 win over the Illini in 1986. Last week's results -- Illinois 50, Miami (Ohio) 14; Nebraska was idle. Next week's games -- Illinois is idle; Nebraska plays at Purdue. Statistical leaders Rushing -- Illinois: Donovonn Young 46 attempts, 208 yards, 2 touchdowns; Josh Ferguson 30-196; Aaron Bailey 12-76, 3 TDs. Nebraska: Ameer Abdullah 74-465, 3 TDs; Terrell Newby 36-210, 2 TDs; Imani Cross 30-198, 5 TDs; Taylor Martinez 32-101. Passing -- Illinois: Nathan Scheelhaase 82 completions, 122 attempts, 3 interceptions, 1,162 yards, 12 touchdowns. Nebraska: Martinez 53-80-1, 528 yards, 9 TDs; Tommy Armstrong Jr. 12-15-0, 169 yards, 1 TD; Ron Kellogg III 12-14-0, 160 yards, 1 TD. Receiving -- Illinois: Ferguson 12 catches, 262 yards, 3 touchdowns; Ryan Lankford 11-236, 1 TD; Martize Barr 11-125, 1 TD; Miles Osei 9-73, Jon Davis 9-53, 2 TDs. Nebraska: Kenny Bell 18-190, 2 TDs; Quincy Enunwa 17-202, 5 TDs; Abdullah 11-115; Jamal Turner 11-83, 1 TD. Tackles -- Illinois: Jonathan Brown 21 solo, 26 assisted, 47 total tackles; Mason Monheim 16-22 -- 38; Earnest Thomas 17-11 -- 28; Eaton Spence 12-13 -- 25; Taylor Barton 8-12 -- 20; Austin Teitsma 4-16 -- 20. Nebraska: Corey Cooper 12-18 -- 30; Harvey Jackson 14-9 -- 23; David Santos 9-13 -- 22; Josh Banderas 9-10 -- 19; Nathan Gerry 9-9 -- 18; Josh Mitchell 10-7 -- 17; Randy Gregory 8-9 -- 17.