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Two-Minute Drill: Key matchups that will decide Nebraska-Illinois
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Two-Minute Drill: Key matchups that will decide Nebraska-Illinois

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Each week, the Two-Minute Drill provides an in-depth breakdown on all the key matchups that will decide a winner in the Husker game. Today we look at what Illinois brings to the showdown with Nebraska.

* * *

WHEN NEBRASKA RUNS THE BALL

Everything looks good for the Huskers’ rushing attack on the surface — the 4.92 yards per carry ranks 36th nationally and they’ve found a reliable rotation of six offensive linemen to lean on. But much of it feels either unsustainable or downright risky considering 66% of NU’s ground production has come from its quarterbacks so far. Illinois is the worst run defense the Huskers have faced so far, so this would be a good week to get the running backs going, whether that’s senior Dedrick Mills or someone else. The Illini have given up an average of 331 rushing yards against Scott Frost’s offense the past two years, and the majority of its front seven now are first-year starters who were gashed by Minnesota and Rutgers the past two weeks. EDGE: NEBRASKA

WHEN NEBRASKA THROWS THE BALL

Both sides are probably hoping to get right against the other here. Nebraska’s aerial attack has been devoid of big plays — it has no 100-yard receiver and its only completion for longer than 30 yards and only “receiving” touchdown was Zavier Betts’ 45-yard dash on a fly sweep against Penn State. Whether the Huskers start redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey again or go back to Adrian Martinez, neither has shown with the ability to consistently read and execute throws. Meanwhile, no FBS team has allowed a higher completion percentage (74.4) than Illinois, including the 20-of-21 performance by Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz last month. It’s the same veteran secondary that Frost said “hit the crap” out of the Huskers a year ago but right now it’s also allowing 9.3 yards per attempt (114th nationally). EDGE: EVEN

WHEN ILLINOIS RUNS THE BALL

Personnel matters here for Illinois, which has shown a willingness to cater its offense to the quarterback. If Brandon Peters is the starting QB in his return from a positive COVID-19 test, expect running backs Chase Brown and Mike Epstein to carry the bulk of the rushing load. But prized 2019 recruit Isaiah Williams set a single-game program quarterback record with 192 rushing yards on 31 carries last week against Rutgers as the Illini ran the ball 76% of the time and could factor in Saturday. A veteran offensive line returning four starters paves the way in the up-tempo attack. Nebraska has been merely average against the run — the 4.41 yards allowed per carry is 72nd in the country — but it feels like a big upgrade from recent groups that were unable to consistently stop opponents. EDGE: ILLINOIS

WHEN ILLINOIS THROWS THE BALL

Four starting quarterbacks in four games hasn’t helped Illinois’ aerial attack. Williams was 7 of 18 against Rutgers while Peters is 8 of 19 this season. Neither have a touchdown pass, and the only game the Illini have thrown for more than 106 yards was against Purdue when the Nos. 3 and 4 QBs played. Still, the team has talented big-bodied pass catchers like Josh Imatorbhebhe (6-foot-2, 220 pounds), Brian Hightower (6-3, 220) and Daniel Barker (6-4, 250) if the football makes it to them. Nebraska is middle of the pack in the Big Ten defending the pass and has some extra confidence after forcing seven straight incompletions in the red zone on Penn State’s last two drives a week ago. NU has three interceptions in the past two games. EDGE: NEBRASKA

SPECIAL TEAMS

Illinois boasts a pair of senior weapons in kicker James McCourt and punter Blake Hayes. McCourt has hit big field goals (like a 47-yard game-winner at Rutgers last week and a 39-yarder at the horn to beat Wisconsin last year) and long ones (three from 50-plus in his career). Hayes, the reigning Big Ten punter of the year and a future NFL player, has put eight of his 19 kicks inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. Grad transfer Connor Culp has brought welcome stability to Nebraska’s kicking game — he’s connected on 6 of 7 field goals and been reliable on kickoffs. The punting has been unspectacular, with a net average (34.21 yards) that ranks 111th in college football. Neither squad has proven to be much of a return threat. EDGE: ILLINOIS

INTANGIBLES

Both teams got off the schneid with their first wins last week but it’s been a grind for each in key parts of the game like converting/stopping third downs and moving the ball in general. Some quarterback stability could help both sides and COVID-19 positive tests have left the Illini shorthanded for weeks before approaching full strength in Lincoln. The Huskers are more of a finished product at this point and finally have some positive reinforcement from a long offseason of work. EDGE: NEBRASKA

KEY MATCHUP: NU’S RED-ZONE OFFENSE VS. ILLINOIS’ RED-ZONE DEFENSE

For all the bugaboos plaguing the Nebraska offense through three games, not finishing drives has been the most aggravating. The Huskers are converting 76.92% of red-zone chances into points (92nd nationally) but are dead last among FBS schools at scoring touchdowns once they reach an opponents’ 20-yard line (4 of 13, or 30.77%). Illinois is simply average at stopping offenses that close to the end zone. The Illini front seven is young, but it can probably key in on a quarterback run or two unless the Huskers are able to clean up the mistakes in the passing game. NU better hang on tight too — Illinois defenders are among the best at punching footballs loose. EDGE: ILLINOIS

OUR TAKE

This has been a one-sided series since Nebraska joined the Big Ten a decade ago but should provide plenty of entertainment Saturday. There’s little to lose for either team, so expect both offenses to get a bit creative within their quarterback uncertainties. If Nebraska’s past two games against Illinois are any indication, this could be a breakout afternoon for whichever QB and running back handle the bulk of the carries. The Huskers haven’t summited the West yet, but beating the Illini should be a regular step along that climb. NU needs to look like the fast-paced, aggressive team it wants to be now because the schedule only gets harder from here. NEBRASKA 34, ILLINOIS 24​

Omaha World-Herald: Big Red

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