A lesson learned the hard way in Boulder, Colorado, has led to a more focused approach from the Nebraska football team (2-1) as it prepares to face Illinois (2-1) on the road in the conference opener for both teams Saturday night.
“We had a really good week,” Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said about his team’s week of practice. “I think the guys are learning how to prepare to get themselves ready to do the best they can in games, and every week seems to be getting a little better.”
The Huskers appeared to be on the way to their first road win of the Frost era two weeks ago, leading Colorado 17-0 at halftime and 24-14 in the fourth quarter, but collapsed down the stretch and fell 34-31 in overtime.
Two weeks later, Nebraska will face an Illinois team hungry to bounce back from its own 34-31 loss against Eastern Michigan last week and prove it is better than its projected last-place finish in the Big Ten West.
The Fighting Illini, in their fourth season under head coach Lovie Smith, have high expectations thanks to Michigan transfer quarterback Brandon Peters, senior running back Reggie Corbin and junior wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe.
Peters has completed 63.2% of his passes for 687 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions through three games this season.
Corbin returns for his senior season after rushing for 1,085 yards as a junior, and is averaging eight yards per carry through two games this season. He missed the second game of the season recovering from a hip injury.
Imatorbhebhe is in the midst of a breakout season after missing all of last year, currently having 10 receptions for 167 yards and three touchdowns. He had four catches for 91 yards against Eastern Michigan and scored a game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Corbin and Peters will also be playing behind an offensive line that returns four players who started all 12 games last season.
On defense, Smith knows his team will have its hands full with Nebraska’s rapidly improving offense. After struggling to contain Eastern Michigan quarterback Mike Glass III, who threw for 316 yards last week, he said Nebraska sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez presents an even greater challenge.
“I know enough about him to know that he’s an outstanding football player,” Smith said of Martinez. “He’s a big, physical runner who can make you miss in the open field. That’s tough to deal with. What makes him a special player is he can throw the football too. He’s athletic enough to buy time. It’s tough keeping him pinned in.”
Nebraska’s offense is looking to build off of an encouraging performance last Saturday in its 44-8 win over Northern Illinois. Martinez threw for 257 yards and two touchdowns, while junior running back Dedrick Mills ran for a career-high 116 yards in the blowout. It was also Martinez’s first game of the season without a turnover.
Nebraska’s defense will also try to do something it hasn’t done in over 15 years. By holding Northern Illinois to 74 total rushing yards, the Huskers have held three straight opponents under the 100-yard mark. They haven’t held four straight opponents under 100 rushing yards since the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
One of the main concerns going into Saturday’s game is the health of the team. Junior left tackle Brenden Jaimes and sophomore safety Cam Taylor-Britt both left last Saturday’s game with injuries, and their statuses for the Illinois game are unknown. Jaimes reportedly practiced in a limited fashion this week, but Frost would not divulge the severity of the injury on Thursday.
Sophomore kicker Barret Pickering is still not expected to play after suffering an undisclosed injury during the offseason. Senior punter Isaac Armstrong is still listed as the starting kicker, but sophomore safety Lane McCallum will also make the trip to Illinois. McCallum replaced Armstrong after three of Armstrong’s kicks were blocked in the first half against Illinois. McCallum made all three extra points he attempted.
Frost said the team will make a decision on who starts before the game on Saturday.
“It’s not a situation we want to be in,” Frost said about the kicking situation Thursday. “Hopefully we’ll be through it soon and it’ll all be in the rearview mirror.”
Nebraska’s game at Illinois will kick off at 7 p.m. and can be seen on BTN.