Beat writer Matt Daniels thinks the Illini will hang tough before losing in Lincoln, Neb.
2 Nathan Scheelhaase 6-3 205 Sr. Kansas City, Mo.
4 Tommy Armstrong 6-1 210 Fr. Cibolo, Texas
Edge: Illinois. It would have been a tossup if Taylor Martinez started. But Bo Pelini named Armstrong his starter Thursday night as Martinez continues to recover from a turf toe injury. Plus, you have to give credit where credit is due. And Scheelhaase certainly deserves a large pat on the back for the way he has played this year. So far. He struggled against Washington, but Washington’s defense is vastly superior to the one Scheelhaase will face Saturday in Lincoln. Scheelhaase has adapted well to the pocket-passer mentality that offensive coordinator Bill Cubit wants out of his starting quarterback. When Scheelhaase has to run the ball, the Illinois offense isn’t as effective. Strange to say those words considering Scheelhaase’s legs were a key reason that Illinois went to back-to-back bowl games in 2010 and 2011. Scheelhaase is the Big Ten’s most efficient quarterback and could quiet more skeptics Saturday with a stellar performance.
6 Josh Ferguson 5-10 195 Soph. Naperville
8 Ameer Abdullah 5-9 190 Jr. Homewood, Ala.
Edge: Nebraska. Abdullah is third in the conference in rushing yards per game and has posted three games of at least 100 yards this season. He can catch passes out of the backfield, too, having hauled in 11 receptions for 115 yards. Abdullah is a dual threat, and he continues the solid tradition of I-backs produced by the Cornhuskers. The plan for Illinois is to likely give Ferguson and Donovonn Young the same workload. Cubit knows he needs both backs, and both are different runners, with Ferguson — who leads the country in receiving yards by a running back with 262 — more of a finesse runner on the perimeter. Young will need to produce runs in between the tackles. If Ferguson and Young can produce like they did against Miami (Ohio), it should bode well for Illinois, but Abdullah is capable of a big play any time he touches the ball.
12 Ryan Lankford 6-0 175 Sr. Jacksonville, Fla.
8 Miles Osei 6-0 195 Sr. Mount Prospect
80 Spencer Harris 6-3 205 Sr. Greenwood, Ark.
80 Kenny Bell 6-1 185 Jr. Boulder, Colo.
18 Quincy Enunwa 6-2 225 Sr. Moreno Valley, Calif.
10 Jamal Turner 6-1 185 Jr. Arlington, Texas
Edge: Nebraska. Bell wins the best hair part of this competition, if there was one. Harris would claim that title for Illinois with his shaggy locks, but Bell’s afro that will peek out his helmet Saturday is a sight to see. So is his game. He caught the 100th pass of his college career last Saturday against South Dakota State and has more than 1,500 career receiving yards. He’s not the only wideout Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks will have to account for. Enunwa is just as capable. He leads the Cornhuskers in receiving yards (202) on 17 catches, and more impressively, has five touchdown receptions. He’s a big, physical wideout the likes of which Illinois has only seen against Washington this year.
3 Jon Davis 6-3 240 Jr. Louisville, Ky.
41 Jake Long 6-4 240 Sr. Elkhorn, Neb.
Edge: Illinois. Don’t be shocked if Davis, Matt LaCosse and Evan Wilson are all on the field at numerous times for the Illini. Like on the first play. Cubit wants to get his big guys involved. Based on the success the Illini had against Miami (Ohio), Nebraska will try to stifle the trio, much like Washington did. Combined, Davis, LaCosse and Wilson have 20 catches for 223 yards and six touchdowns. Not too shabby. Long isn’t utilized too much in Nebraska’s passing game, at least not so far this season. He comes into Saturday with four receptions for 69 yards. If Davis, LaCosse and Wilson can come close to matching the production they had last Saturday against the RedHawks, Illinois should stay competitive with Nebraska the whole game.
68 Simon Cvijanovic 6-5 310 Jr. Cleveland
74 Michael Heitz 6-5 305 Jr. Vermont
52 Alex Hill 6-3 315 Jr. Slidell, La.
69 Ted Karras 6-4 300 Soph. Indianapolis
70 Corey Lewis 6-6 315 Sr. Cresco, Pa.
71 Jeremiah Sirles 6-6 310 Sr. Lakewood, Colo.
68 Jake Cotton 6-6 305 Jr. Lincoln, Neb.
62 Cole Pensick 6-2 275 Sr. Lincoln, Neb.
61 Spencer Long 6-4 315 Sr. Elkhorn, Neb.
63 Andrew Rodriguez 6-6 330 Sr. Aurora, Neb.
Edge: Nebraska. Experience and continuity isn’t a question when it comes to the big linemen the Cornhuskers have. The starting five has made a combined 85 starts, with Sirles and Long the veterans of the unit. It’s evident in the protection they have given Martinez, Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III this season. Nebraska has allowed two sacks, the fewest in the Big Ten and, for good measure, the country. The line also has paved the way for Abdullah and given Huskers quarterbacks plenty of time to scan the field and find open receivers. Conversely, Illinois has allowed 10 sacks this season, tied for last in the Big Ten.
59 Tim Kynard 6-3 270 Sr. Toledo, Ohio
95 Jake Howe 6-3 300 Jr. McHenry
44 Austin Teitsma 6-2 290 Jr. Glen Ellyn
55 Houston Bates 6-3 250 Jr. Covington, La.
9 Jason Ankrah 6-4 265 Sr. Gaithersburg, Md.
53 Thad Randle 6-1 290 Sr. Galena Park, Texas
98 Vincent Valentine 6-3 325 Fr. Edwardsville
44 Randy Gregory 6-6 255 Soph. Fishers, Ind.
Edge: Nebraska. The Cornhuskers’ best pass rusher might not start Saturday. Avery Moss has a team-high 2.5 sacks and had two of those sacks during Nebraska’s loss to UCLA. The freshman splits time with Gregory at one of the end spots. Valentine, a former Illinois recruiting target, and Randle are tasked with plugging up the middle, but they haven’t had much success. Three of Nebraska’s first four foes rushed for more than 200 yards. But Illinois’ pass rush is the worst so far in the Big Ten. Illinois has four sacks this season, last in the conference and two fewer than Purdue, which sits in 11th place in that category. And only 1.5 of those sacks have come from defensive linemen Kynard and Bates. Going up against a stout Nebraska offensive line does not look like it will bode well for the front four Illinois will use.
45 Jonathan Brown 6-1 230 Sr. Memphis, Tenn.
43 Mason Monheim 6-1 235 Soph. Orrville, Ohio
14 Eric Finney 6-1 215 Soph. Corona, Calif.
25 Nathan Gerry 6-2 210 Fr. Sioux Falls, S.D.
41 David Santos 6-0 225 Soph. Spring, Texas
13 Zaire Anderson 5-11 220 Jr. Philadelphia
Edge: Illinois. Brown is proving a point to the NFL scouts who have swung by Champaign this season. The athleticism is clear when Brown goes after a ball carrier or quarterback, and his smarts are paying dividends in his tackle totals. He is sixth in the country in tackles per game (11.8) and ranks first in the conference. Not far behind him is Monheim, who is averaging 9.5 tackles a game. Monheim, while not having the same type of speed as Brown, is just as capable with his ability to keep his shoulders square in front of an opposing offensive player. His ability to finish tackles was much better against Miami (Ohio) than it was against Washington. He will need to produce even more against the Cornhuskers.
2 V’Angelo Bentley 5-10 190 Soph. Cleveland
9 Earnest Thomas 6-2 210 Jr. Orchard Lake, Mich.
3 Taylor Barton 6-1 215 Fr. Orlando, Fla.
27 Eaton Spence 6-0 185 Soph. Belle Glade, Fla.
5 Josh Mitchell 5-11 160 Jr. Corona, Calif.
6 Corey Cooper 6-1 210 Jr. Maywood
1 Harvey Jackson 6-2 210 Jr. Fresno, Texas
17 Ciante Evans 5-11 190 Sr. Arlington, Texas
Edge: Nebraska. The takeaways just haven’t happened when it comes to this group for Illinois. Barton’s interception against Cincinnati is the lone pick the Illini have had this year. Forcing turnovers has become a staple of Nebraska’s secondary. Evans has three interceptions, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who splits time with Mitchell, leads the squad with four. Only two other players in the country have as many interceptions as Jean-Baptiste. Nebraska’s nine interceptions rank fifth in the nation. Cooper, a former Illinois commit and 2009 News-Gazette All-State selection, has one. Illinois’ young secondary is improving, but it’s not on par yet with the one Nebraska has.
17 Taylor Zalewski (K, KO) 6-3 220 Soph. Orland Park
18 Justin DuVernois (P) 6-1 190 Jr. Plantation, Fla.
54 Zach Hirth (LS) 6-4 220 Fr. Eureka, Mo.
86 Tim Russell (Holder) 6-6 235 Sr. St. Charles
2 V’Angelo Bentley (KR, PR) 5-10 190 Soph. Cleveland
8 Miles Osei (KR, PR) 6-0 200 Sr. Mount Prospect
94 Pat Smith (K) 5-11 185 Sr. Quincy
37 Mauro Bondi (KO) 6-0 200 Soph. Boca Raton, Fla.
27 Sam Foltz (P, Holder) 6-1 200 Fr. Grand Island, Neb.
91 Gabriel Miller (LS) 6-0 235 Fr. Mishawaka, Ind.
80 Kenny Bell (KR) 6-1 185 Jr. Boulder, Colo.
1 Jordan Westerkamp (PR) 6-0 200 Fr. Lombard
Edge: Illinois. The place-kicking situation leaves a little to be desired. Zalewski has missed two of his last three field goal attempts. If he hooks one or pushes one wide Saturday, don’t be surprised if Tim Beckman opts to use Ryan Frain. Which doesn’t necessarily imply good kicks will follow. But, on the bright side for Illinois, Bentley is leading the country in kickoff return average (37.5 yards) and has given a lift to a stagnant unit. Same thing on the punt returns. DuVernois’ leg should be well-rested because he hasn’t punted in a game since Sept. 14, and Russell has proven he’s a capable passing threat for any two-point conversion or fake field goal. Bell is a possibility to take it the length of the field, and Westerkamp, a 2010 and 2011 News-Gazette All-State pick from Montini, returned the first punt of his college career for 9 yards against South Dakota State.
Tim Beckman At UI (5-11) Overall (26-27)
Bo Pelini At Nebraska (52-21) Overall (52-21)
Edge: Nebraska. Pelini is on the hot seat in Lincoln. No question. A loss to Illinois won’t help matters. We don’t think Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst would pull a Pat Haden and fire Pelini in a parking lot outside Memorial Stadium, but a loss to the Illini won’t help Pelini’s cause. It’s a contrast in the two programs, too. A record like Pelini has during his tenure at Nebraska would have Illinois fans wanting to build a sculpture of him if he accomplished the same feats in Champaign. But this is the school that fired Frank Solich after a 9-3 regular season in 2003. Until Beckman can prove he is up to the task of taking down some of the prominent Big Ten schools, Illinois will have a hard time winning this category.
Illinois will put points on the board in Lincoln. Plenty of them. But not at the rate the Illini have so far in three home games. And the defense will struggle to contain a balanced Cornhuskers offense. When you see the Illinois score scroll across the screen at various points Saturday, you will be surprised. Bill Cubit and Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck — whom Cubit coached when he was an assistant in the 1980s at Central Florida — will put on a clinic at times with their play-calling, but the real winner emerges with who can make the most stops. This advantage goes to the Cornhuskers, who, despite some suspect defense at times
this season, will limit Illinois just enough. And when it matters most. Illinois will keep it close going into the fourth quarter but can’t outscore Nebraska, falling 48-34. (N-G record: 3-1)