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Game On: Storylines, players and matchups to watch (plus a prediction) for Huskers vs. Illinois

Game On: Storylines, players and matchups to watch (plus a prediction) for Huskers vs. Illinois

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Penn State vs. Nebraska, 11.14

Nebraska's Cam Taylor-Britt (5) intercepts a ball intended for Penn State's Jahan Dotson in the first half last Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Nebraska got its first win of the season last week against Penn State and now turns its attention to Illinois, which also notched victory No. 1 on Saturday. Can the Huskers start a winning streak? Let's take a closer look at how NU and the Illini compare.

How the Huskers light up the scoreboard

1. Keep ’er movin'. Nebraska hasn’t had trouble getting off to fast starts this year. The Huskers have led early in all three games so far. But they’ve also scored a grand total of six offensive points in the second half. Let’s not get greedy, but at least some second-half scoring would help light up the scoreboard.

2. Airmail. The Huskers have one passing touchdown through three games. One! And the pass didn’t actually even make it back to the line of scrimmage. It was a fly sweep to Zavier Betts against Penn State. Of course, Kade Warner should have had one on a nice design in the first quarter.

3. Any explosives? Betts’ catch-and-run was the first scoring play of more than 10 yards for Nebraska this year offensively. Can the Huskers find some way to create more chunk plays?

4. Rely on that defense. The Blackshirts scored seven themselves against Penn State and have handed the offense a super-short field each of the past two weeks. If they keep doing that, life is certainly easier for the offense.

How the Blackshirts shut ’em down

1. Don’t bust. No defense is perfect in this regard, of course, but the Huskers had PSU pretty well bottled except for two busts in the running game and one blown coverage in the passing game. Three plays, 139 yards, directly accounting for the Nittany Lions’ only two touchdowns. Other than that, pretty darn good.

2. Account for the QB. Regardless of who plays for the Illini, Nebraska can’t let the quarterback run wild. It takes smart rush lanes and sure tackling, which NU wasn’t perfect at last week. But they look capable of it.

3. Start fast, stay fast. A year ago, Illinois’ Reggie Corbin ripped off a 66-yard TD run on the game’s second play. NU trailed 14-0 in the first seven minutes. That’s a recipe for a long day. Nebraska got stops on PSU’s first drive of each half last week. A repeat performance of that would do NU well.

4. Field position battle. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander talked about complementary football this week, and it’s always important. If the offense sustains drives and the punting and kicking units have another solid day, Illinois will have to work for points. That’s the way you want it.

Three numbers to know

103: Illinois’ ranking nationally in yards allowed per play (6.54). Ohio State is No. 51, Northwestern No. 4 and Penn State No. 48.

78: Nebraska’s national ranking in yards per play offensively, checking in at 5.44. NU averaged 5.76 in 2019 and 6.31 in 2018.

3.4: Yards per carry for Nebraska’s running backs (including Wan’Dale Robinson) through three games. Last year, NU’s backs averaged 4.7 per carry.

Under the radar

Levi Falck

WR| No. 88 | Sr.: It’s a little bit hard to find under-the-radar offensive players at this point because that side of the ball has been under the microscope. A walk-on graduate transfer from South Dakota, Falck made his biggest play of the season so far against PSU with a 22-yard reception. He started NU’s first two games and got consistent time against the Nittany Lions. Can he make a bigger splash this week? Or, more broadly, who will among the receivers?

Caleb Tannor

OLB | No. 2 | Jr.: Tannor has somewhat quietly made a nice step at the beginning of his junior season. He’s played more consistently, looks like he knows what he’s doing and is closer to being, as position coach Mike Dawson asked of him this offseason, “an every play guy.” In particular, he took a good angle on his rush on PSU’s final snap Saturday, helping to leave Will Levis with nowhere to go in the face of interior pressure from Ty Robinson and Ben Stille. The big plays will come eventually if Tannor keeps making strides on the basics.

Marquee matchup

Nebraska junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt vs. Illinois senior wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe

Imatorbhebhe hasn’t put up huge numbers so far this year, but Illinois also has been dealing with a scramble drill at quarterback. Taylor-Britt has taken a step forward as a junior and is staking his claim as NU’s best cover corner. He’s big and physical and helped slow down PSU’s Jahan Dotson last week. When the pair is matched up, it will be fun to watch.

Something’s got to give

Nebraska’s passing game against Illinois’ pass defense

In lieu of a mismatch this week, consider this matchup of weaknesses and figure something has to give. Illinois is No. 122 out of 126 in the FBS this year in passer rating allowed and has given up 10 touchdown passes through four games. Opposing teams are completing 74.4% of their passes and averaging 278 passing yards per game. The Huskers? They are No. 113 nationally in passer rating, have just one passing touchdown, are completing 61.6% of their passes and are averaging 176.7 passing yards per game.

So, what’s going to give?

Prediction

Nebraska 31, Illinois 23

The Huskers’ challenge this week is to handle the feeling of success after topping Penn State last week. Given the clear improvements that still need to be made — Nebraska was outgained 304-95 in the second half against the Nittany Lions — and given that Illinois is also coming off its first win of the season, it shouldn’t be too big a task.

What does the offense look like in Week 2 under Luke McCaffrey (assuming he starts again)? Can NU be more consistent? Can it create some big plays? Is the two-week run of forcing turnovers and turning them into points a growing trend or a flash in the pan? Lots of questions to answer. They don’t have to have resounding answers all at once, but progress on a couple of fronts would be a good sign.

The guess here is NU gets enough to even its record and carry a good feeling into a Black Friday matchup in Iowa City, Iowa.

Contact the writer at pgabriel@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.

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