LINCOLN, Neb. — One win is nice, but two in a row is called a winning streak.
Either Illinois or Nebraska are going to walk off the field today at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., with the momentum of back-to-back wins.
“We won last week which is great, but it’s one week, you have to move on and keep pushing,’’ said Illinois senior center Doug Kramer, who returned to the Fighting Illini lineup last week after missing two game because of COVID-19 tracing protocols.
Illinois coach Lovie Smith admitted a 23-20 win over Rutgers has given his team a little extra momentum heading into today’s 11 a.m. kickoff against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
“As you get older, you are supposed to be able to not just win one game but put a couple of games together,’’ he said. “You are supposed to be able to go on the road and win two games instead of getting just one win. All of these things we are excited about seeing if we can take that next step.’’
Nebraska coach Scott Frost had pretty much the same message about his team.
“Guys in this building can’t win one and relax,’’ he said. “They have to let that elevate them and go back out on the field and work that much harder to get even better and keep moving this ball down the field.’’
The Illini (1-3) and the Cornhuskers (1-2) took a similar path to their first victories last week.
Illinois got a spark from redshirt freshman quarterback Isaiah Williams, who rushed for a quarterback school-record 192 yards on 31 carries, while Luke McCaffrey, a redshirt freshman for Nebraska, ran for 67 and threw for 152 in his first collegiate start as the Cornhuskers defeated the Penn State Nittany Lions 30-23.
“McCaffrey is an excellent football player. He had the same kind of affect that Isaiah had on our football team,’’ Smith said. “He can pass the football and he is good in space. It’s just a different dimension when you have a guy like that, leading their offense, which causes a lot of problems itself.
“It will be a big challenge for us.’’
Actually, just facing the Nebraska offense is going to be a big challenge for Illinois.
The Cornhuskers, who are 13-3-1 all-time against the Illini, have racked up 1,280 yards in their last two victories, a 54-35 triumph in 2018 and a 42-38 win last season in Champaign.
“They do a great job of getting it out in space and getting it to their playmakers,’’ said Illinois senior linebacker Jake Hansen. “We have to do a better job, play a little harder, limit their third-down conversions, which will be a big one for us, and take the ball away.
“We have had some success with that in the past and that will be a major emphasis this week, as well.’’
A year ago, Illinois built a trio of 14-polnt leads (21-7, 28-14 and 35-21) thanks in part to four lost fumbles by Nebraska, but the Cornhuskers scored 21 points in the game’s final 18 minutes to grab a 42-38 victory.
Last week’s win for the Illini was also the first time that they had forced an opponent into three turnovers and the eight fumble recoveries (2.0 per game) ranks Illinois third in the nation. But Smith is still concerned the pass defense, which ranks 119th in nation and last in the Big Ten.
“We will continue to work on the pass coverage part and hopefully we can eliminate some of these big plays,’’ Smith said. “That’s what killing us right now. Playing good but giving up big plays — that shouldn’t be happening.’’
On the offensive side of the football, Illinois figures to rely heavily on its ground attack.
The combination of Williams and running back Chase Brown, who had a career-best 131 rushing yards, helped the Illini run for a season-high 338 yards in the win over Rutgers.
“For us to have the type of rushing game that we had, the offensive line needs to be solid,’’ said Smith, who noted that Danville native Julian Pearl played a big role in that as he filled in for the injured Alex Palczewski at right tackle.
But, who will be at quarterback today for Illinois?
Senior Brandon Peters, who started the season-opener at Wisconsin, returns after missing three weeks following a positive COVID-19 test.
“Of course, I’m not going to say what our game plan is going to be,’’ Smith said. “I would say that we have some good options going into this week.’’
While not picking a side in the possible quarterback debate, Brown did have an interesting observation about having Williams at quarterback.
“The defense has to consider Isaiah as a running threat, but Brandon is still a running threat,’’ he said. “With Isaiah in there and our power running scheme with him, they have to consider him and if they cheat on him, I’m open and if they cheat on me, he’s open.
“We compliment each other.’’
Today’s game, which is set for an 11 a.m. kickoff, can be seen on Fox Sports 1, while it can be heard on the Busey Bank Illini Sports Network, including Danville stations, WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.