Coming off a heartbreaking loss and a short week before a bye, the Illinois game feels like a trap game. Hopefully not for the players, but it was for my creativity when it comes to writing this preview. There’s not much to say other than Friday night’s matchup with Illinois is crucial for the Husker’s bowl eligibility. Winning the next four games is the best route to six wins. Winning just one of the final three versus Maryland, Wisconsin, and Iowa will be a tall ask. Even though it’s on the road, Illinois offers a good matchup for the Huskers to get back to .500 on the year. But perhaps the Husker’s biggest nemesis in the Big Ten stands on the other sideline this week.
Luke Altmyer and Heinrich Haarberg (and Jeff Sims) have had similar ups and downs this season. Altmyer leads the Big Ten in interceptions thrown (7) offering the Blackshirts some good opportunities to set up the offense with some short fields. However, his favorite target, Isaiah Williams, leads the Big Ten in receptions (30) and yards (446). Williams has two touchdowns in three previous games versus the Huskers but has yet to find the endzone this season. The secondary must ensure he stays out of the endzone for another week.
The key matchup this week is the Huskers rushing offense (209/game), first in the Big Ten, versus the Illini rushing defense (179.6/game), last in the Big Ten. It’s going to be hard for the Huskers to find four more wins without drastic improvement in the passing game, but that’s a problem that should be left for the bye week. Illinois has given up at least 150 yards rushing in four out of five games this year. Haarberg, along with Anthony Grant and now Josh Fleeks, should be able to break off some big runs. If the Huskers get 250 yards rushing, they should head into their 15-day break with a win.
The Huskers rush defense is still statistically one of the best in the Big Ten despite a bad day against Michigan allowing 86.8 YPG. One point of optimism for the Blackshirts is that they held star Michigan running back Blake Corum to his worst game of the season. Reggie Love III and Josh McCray have struggled to replace Chase Brown this season, but Bret Bielema loves to run the ball on Nebraska. The Blackshirts need to return to form defensively and force Altmyer to throw the ball. If they can do this, there will be a chance for mistakes that the defense can exploit.
Bret Bielema is 4-0 against Nebraska and despite the final score of the 2021 opener, none of the games have been particularly competitive. This Illinois team is a built a lot different than those four squads, though. The Illini lack a star running back and the Huskers cannot afford to make a good back look like a star. The Illini have had an exactly 50/50 run/pass mix this season, if the Huskers can disrupt that and force the Illini to throw, the Blackshirts will have an opportunity to make a game-changing play that could set the tone for the back half of the season.