Nebraska vs Illinois Predictions & Game Preview
When: Saturday August 28
Start Time: 1pm ET
Where: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL
TV Channel: FOX
Nebraska vs Illinois Predictions
Running out the tunnel:
Nebraska coach Scott Frost began this offseason firmly entrenched in win or walk mode. Then the athletic director who hired him retired. Then the NCAA began investigating the program for impermissible use of analysts, and for illegal offseason workouts last year during the pandemic.
Now the Huskers begin Year 4 under Frost with a crossroads moment in Week 1: at Big Ten bottom feeder Illinois, which beat Nebraska by 18 last year in Lincoln.
After four consecutive losing seasons (three under Frost), it’s time for this once proud program to show what It can do under Frost, who has recruited a majority of this team.
“I love my team right now,” Frost said. “We’re excited.”
The same can be said for Illinois, which despite more than a decade of futility with four different coaches, has a renewed energy percolating around Champaign. Why? The big man, coach Bret Bielema, has taken over and has promised smart, tough football.
It’s not too difficult to see what Bielema can bring: in seven seasons at Wisconsin, he won 68 games and took the Badgers to two Rose Bowls. Within those seven years at Camp Randall, his Wisconsin teams were 4-1 vs. Illinois and were among the elite of the Big Ten.
That’s what the Illinois brass wants you to focus on, not Bielema’s last five seasons as a coach at Arkansas -- when he was fired after winning just 29 games. In an age of pass-happy and multiple offenses, Bielema won’t stray much from his philosophy of being tougher than the guy across from you, and running the ball and playing defense.
When Nebraska has the ball
Here we go again with QB Adrian Martinez. He’s full of talent, and can hurt you with his arm and legs. Only there’s one crucial problem: ball security.
In three seasons as a starter, Martinez has 27 fumbles (15 lost) and 20 interceptions. Those 35 turnovers are an ungodly number, and the main reason Nebraska hasn’t turned the corner under Frost.
Nebraska doesn’t have much experience at receiver, but does have potential, including Omar Manning – and 6-feet-4, 225-pound freak of an athlete who can run. But he lacks consistency, and hasn’t yet been the No.1 receiver the staff expected him to grow into.
Make no mistake, Nebraska wants to run the ball. Even when Frost’s teams at UCF were lighting up the scoreboard, they did so with a strong running game that made things much easier for star quarterback McKenzie Milton.
In 2017 at UCF, the Knights ran the ball 500 times (for 2,583 yards), and threw 424 passes. The goal is that ratio, but Nebraska’s offensive line is still a work in progress and the Huskers will likely use running back by committee with redshirt freshman Sevion Morrison and heralded freshman Gabe Ervin. Neither has a college carry.
When Illinois has the ball
There’s not much to the imagination. Line up with big, beefy linemen, run isolation plays and throw over the top off play action.
It has worked over and over for Bielema – even to a point, at Arkansas – so don’t expect him to stray too far from it at Illinois. To that point, a strength of the Illini is the offensive line. A trio of players – Alex Palczewski, Vederian Lowe and Doug Kramer – have started for the Illini since the 2017 season, and all three took advantage of the extra year of eligibility offered by the NCAA after the Covid season.
Palczewski and Lowe have 40 career starts, and Kramer has 37. That experience is critical for Bielema’s desire to change the culture at Illinois, and install a more physical team.
Brandon Peters, a 24-year-old 6th year senior, begins his third year as the starting quarterback. He hasn’t yet finished a full season because of various injuries, and this team isn’t exactly deep at the position.
The bottom line
Nebraska has better players. Nebraska has the better quarterback. But if the Huskers get careless with the ball – the Illini defense forced 15 turnovers in eight games last year, and led the Big Ten with 28 turnovers forced in 2019 – Bielema’s first season at Illinois will finish with an upset.
One key x-factor: the Illini kicking game is terrific. Punter Blake Hayes is the best in the Big Ten, and kicker James McCourt has a big leg (a long career FG of 57 yards).
Nebraska vs Illinois Prediction & Betting Picks