Beat writer Matt Daniels looks at three key players for each squad.
NATHAN SCHEELHAASE, QB
If Illinois wants to have a happy flight back to Champaign on Saturday, the fifth-year senior has to deliver.
The Cornhuskers’ secondary is full of playmakers. Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans (combined seven interceptions) will undoubtedly gamble on any passes that come their way. Scheelhaase has avoided the momentum-changing interception all season. He must continue to value the ball like he has shown through the first month of the season.
Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has given Scheelhaase freedom to check plays at the line of scrimmage. Still, the knowledge Cubit has brought to Illinois certainly has benefited Scheelhaase.
“For everybody, you want to know exactly what’s expected of you and know exactly how you’re supposed to do it,” Scheelhaase said. “I think that’s what everybody’s been feeling this year. Coach Cubit has trusted me a lot this season. I think it’s something that I had to show him during spring and as I was running things during summer and into the fall camp.”
JOSH FERGUSON, RB
High-stepping. Juking. Jiving. Ferguson showed video-game-like moves last Saturday. Give him the ball in space and he is bound to make something happen.
Which is what Illinois has done, allowing the Joliet Catholic speedster to enter Big Ten play leading Illinois in receiving yards (he could become the first running back to lead Illinois in receiving yards since Robert Holcombe in 1997).
The soft-spoken Ferguson isn’t one to boast about his production.
“I just wanted to contribute in any way,” said Ferguson, who is second on the team with 196 rushing yards. “Coach has been putting me in great positions to do well.”
Teammates gladly tout his exploits.
“I spend a lot of time with Josh at church and things like that, and I’m so happy for him,” right tackle Corey Lewis said. “It’s almost like his breakout year. I always knew he had it in him from the time he came here. He’s just putting it on display this year.”
TIM KYNARD, DE
Illinois wants to have a pass rush Saturday. Needs to have a pass rush. Must have a pass rush. Enter Kynard.
The senior has one sack this season. If he doubles, or even triples that number, defensive line coach Greg Colby might have a vertical like the one tight ends coach Alex Golesh had during the Illinois-Washington game. Go check out that photo. Golesh has it on his Twitter account. It’s epic.
“Pass rush has been a thing that we’re continually harping on,” Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “Hopefully we can continue to develop and continue to grow.”
Defensive tackle Austin Teitsma said even if Kynard’s sack totals aren’t that high, the respect he has from his teammates is.
“The leadership this year is more family-oriented,” Teitsma said. “They’re really there to play with us. Every time something goes wrong out there, they’re right there to talk to us about it and get us hyped up. The leadership has been fantastic.”
TOMMY ARMSTRONG, QB
He’s no Taylor Martinez.
By any means.
But the redshirt freshman from Texas is a solid backup. Of course, his lone start came against South Dakota State, and any FBS quarterback who has half his wits about him should put up decent numbers against the Jackrabbits. Armstrong is a dual threat like Martinez, having rushed for 61 yards on nine carries two weeks ago and completing 12 of 15 passes for 169 yards. Instead of the potential for an 80-yard run with a healthy Martinez in there, Armstrong doesn’t have quite the big-play capability.
At least he hasn’t shown it yet in his brief college career.
Getting to Armstrong will prove interesting. Nebraska’s offensive line is the best in the country. The big boys have given up two sacks all season.
“We’re going to have to be able to utilize both the inside and outside moves,” Kynard said. “They’ve got really good linemen. This is the Big Ten. We know it’s going to be a tough challenge for us.”
AMEER ABDULLAH, RB
He’s not the biggest back. Doesn’t seem to matter, though.
He made a name for himself early in his career with his ability to return punts and kicks. Now he’s causing the same type of havoc out of the backfield.
Abdullah surpassed the 1,500-yard plateau in his career earlier this season and, if he stays healthy, is almost a lock to go past 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season.
“He’s like a scatback,” Kynard said. “He’s real jittery, but he runs hard as well. That’s their bread and butter. If Martinez is or isn’t playing, they’re going to rely on No. 8 to do the job.”
He can catch the ball, too, turning a short pass in the flat into a significant gain. How the Illini linebackers handle Abdullah in space is critical. What Bishop Sankey did to Illinois three weeks ago in Chicago is still fresh in their minds, and another strong effort by the opposing running back doesn’t bode well for Illinois.
KENNY BELL, WR
It’s no coincidence three offensive players highlight the Cornhuskers. The offense has played well. The defense has not. Bell could make Illinois’ defensive players have a long flight back to Champaign on Saturday.
The Boulder, Colo., native grew up in the backyard of Nebraska’s old rival from the Big 12 and Big Eight, but he now is making Cornhuskers fans happy with his steady play. By the time his season ends, the play-making wideout should have his name firmly among the top five in virtually every receiving category at the school. His speed and crisp route running are his best attributes. He isn’t a stranger to the end zone, either, with 13 career receiving touchdowns. Though he hasn’t topped the 100-yard receiving plateau this season, he’s due for a breakout game.
“He’s a quick guy and has some good hands,” Illinois cornerback V’Angelo Bentley said. “He’s put in some work there. I know he’s one of their leaders, and I just look forward to the matchup.”