Nebraska hopes Illinois doesn't pick apart pass defense
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Nebraska makes its first trip to the Illinois campus since 1986 and the favored Cornhuskers could use a win in the Big Ten opener for both teams.
Fall short on Saturday and Nebraska (2-2) would leave town with a losing record and games against No. 19 Wisconsin and No. 16 Northwestern over the next three weeks.
For an Illinois team (3-1) looking to prove something in a tumultuous season, the game has high stakes, too. To get to a bowl the Illini might have to pull off an upset along the way. A Nebraska team that isn't a direct descendent of the Tom Osborne glory days might be one of their best shots.
The game will be first-year Nebraska coach Mike Riley's Big Ten initiation, and Illinois' passing game could test the suspect Cornhusker pass defense. It is last in the conference, giving up 379.5 yards a game.
''I watch the film and go, `What are we doing here?''' Riley said, explaining that his players have panicked when things go wrong. ''We've got to coach to a point where the confidence, no matter what's going on, we'll play within the principles of what we're doing.''
Interim Illinois coach Bill Cubit, who was promoted when player-abuse allegations led to the firing of Tim Beckman a week before the season, nonetheless sees the favored Cornhuskers as a serious challenge.
''Hopefully we get a nice crowd out there,'' Cubit said. ''We're going to have to play really well. We understand that.''
Some things to watch Saturday:
When the teams played at Nebraska in 2014, the Illinois offense was limited without injured quarterback Wes Lunt and the defense could not stop the Cornhuskers. The result was a 45-14 Nebraska romp. Ameer Abdullah ran for 208 yards and three touchdowns.
''I remember we started off really well and went down and scored and it fell apart from there,'' Lunt said.
Cubit said he believes this Illini team is better, and one big reason is the protection in front of Lunt. Illinois has given up one sack a game so far.
The coach also thinks his defense is better, too, and will be focused on quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. Last season, the Illini were last in The Big Ten or close to it in a number of defensive categories. This season they are a solid seventh in total defense at 306 yards a game and second in preventing third-down conversions, allowing them 21.3 percent of the time. The Illini also have forced eight turnovers.
HUSKER DEFENSIVE TROUBLE
Nebraska linebacker Chris Weber believes that, while the Cornhuskers' run defense has been good at just 73.5 yards a game, the team has beaten itself in pass defense. ''I mean, we're stopping the run, but we have to be able to stop the pass if that's what teams are doing,'' he said.
RED ZONE FRUSTRATION
The Cornhuskers are scoring 36.2 points a game, third in the Big Ten. But Riley says they have left a lot of points on the field. ''We actually opened the game with six scoring drives,'' Riley said of last week's 36-28 win over Southern Mississippi. ''The problem was that five of them were field goals.''
Riley said he thought Illinois' offense didn't look much different with Cubit in the head-coaching role. Lunt still throws the ball and Josh Ferguson is the top back. But look for the freshman behind Ferguson on the depth chart to play a significant role, too: Ke'Shawn Vaughn had 80 yards and a touchdown in last Saturday's 27-25 win over Middle Tennessee State, and ''really grew up,'' according to Cubit. On one third-quarter drive, the 205-pound Vaughn carried the ball five straight plays, picking up 21 tough yards.
''For us to get through, Keyshawn's got to be a player for us,'' Cubit said.
Nebraska has not played in Champaign since 1986, but Cornhusker receiver Jordan Westerkamp and his family know their way around Memorial Stadium. Westerkamp's dad, Bob, was a receiver for the Illini in the 1980s. And Jordan Westerkamp helped Montini Catholic High School in Lombard, Illinois, win three state titles on the field in Champaign. In the 2011 game, he caught 12 passes for 353 yards and five touchdowns.
Illinois offered him a scholarship, he said.
''I visited there. I liked it, but when I came (to Nebraska), obviously I liked it better,'' he said.
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: (at)davidmercerAP