Daniels: Four keys for Illinois against Nebraska

1 Play with confidence. Simple concept. Hard to keep for a program like Illinois, which has sputtered so much in the past. Start out strong and Bill Cubit’s offense could possibly look like it did much of the first four games. Any time you can get ahead of a team like Nebraska in its home stadium bodes well.

The offensive prowess has given Illinois a different feel to it compared with last year, when it struggled so mightily. The big question, however, comes on defense. Get a few stops early against a Nebraska offense that isn’t the same with Taylor Martinez out and Tommy Armstrong Jr. in and who knows?

The game might not resemble a scoring-fest, like many have suggested it will become. Even though the defense has not played well at times this year, the belief in its ability isn’t lacking. Take what Mason Monheim said after the victory last Saturday against Miami (Ohio). “It’s a faceless opponent,” the linebacker said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Alabama or if it’s .... We’re never going to have a perfect game, but our game plan is going to be the same. We want to dominate them, and we want to win.”

2 Bring the noise. The country music was out in full bore early on at Illinois’ practice Tuesday in Champaign. Then Jay-Z came through the speakers loud and clear early on during Wednesday’s practice.

Good preparation for not only what Illinois fans might hear at Tom Osborne Field, but in terms of dealing with the crowd noise for the players. Loud music of all varieties is a norm at Illinois practices. Has been since the first one on Aug. 5. Illinois offensive coordinator Cubit doesn’t anticipate any confusion getting the right play calls in as a result of the Memorial Stadium crowd, which will pack the venue for its 330th consecutive sellout.

“Beck’s done a great job with the noise, listening to music all the time (during practice),” Cubit said. “It seems to be right behind us all the time. I told the quarterbacks the same thing. There’s a lot of silent counts and stuff like that that we’ve been doing. You say it shouldn’t be an issue, and hopefully it isn’t.” Matt LaCosse feels the same as his offensive coordinator. “(The music) really helps us on Saturday because when things get loud, we don’t really notice it at all,” the tight end said. “The noise is going to be crazy, but you have to deal with it and make the best of it.”

3 Special returns. Field a punt or kickoff and anticipation has risen this year concerning Illinois. V’Angelo Bentley and Miles Osei have proved their worth in both aspects, with Bentley entering today’s game leading the nation in kickoff return average at 37.5 yards.

“It’s a great accomplishment,” said Bentley, who is averaging 15.8 yards per punt return, highlighted by a 50-yard return last Saturday against Miami (Ohio). “I couldn’t have done it without the other 10 guys on the field. I just give thanks to them and thanks to the coaches for setting up the game plan to make plays.”

Osei isn’t just back there directing Bentley, either. He has averaged 11 yards per punt return, helped out by a 38-yarder against Cincinnati. If Osei or Bentley is able to break a long return again, it should provide a boost for Illinois against a Nebraska team that has not allowed a kickoff return longer than 24 yards or a punt return longer than 26 yards this year. “I feel like this year, all of us on special teams trust each other,” Osei said. “I feel like we all take that upon ourselves to do a good job on blocking. Everyone is just trusting each other that we’ll get the blocks in.”

4 Don’t get overwhelmed. Beckman has coached one game at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium. It came during the 2007 season, when he was in his first year as Oklahoma State’s defensive coordinator. The Cowboys thumped the Cornhuskers 45-14 in what was Bill Callahan’s final season on the sidelines.

Cubit has coached there twice, once as a head coach (2008 season opener when Nebraska and first-year coach Bo Pelini beat Cubit’s Broncos 47-24) and once as an assistant (Missouri lost 42-14 during the 2000 season when the Pennsylvania native was the Tigers’ offensive coordinator). “The first time I was there, when you come out of the locker room and their fans are patting you on the back saying, ‘Come on, give us a good game,’ the Philly in me says, ‘OK, what’s the angle out here?’ ” Cubit said. “But that’s just the way they are. They love their football out there.”

For most of the players on Illinois’ roster, this is the first time they’ve been in the state of Nebraska. Illinois defensive lineman Austin Teitsma welcomes the environment. “It’s going to be wild,” he said. “I cannot wait. I’ve just heard how much football means out there, and to a bunch of guys that absolutely love football, that’s just a great stadium to go to and just get after it.”

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