LINCOLN, Neb. — The game plan remains the same.
At least that’s what Tim Beckman is saying with Taylor Martinez out and Tommy Armstrong Jr. starting at quarterback for Nebraska today. Ron Kellogg III is another option Bo Pelini could turn to in place of Armstrong. The Nebraska coach used both against South Dakota State two weeks ago and could again as Martinez sits out his second straight game because of a turf toe injury.
“Both quarterbacks ... are outstanding players,” Beckman said of Armstrong and Kellogg III. “I just think it’s all about what we can do. We’ve got to tackle, we’ve got to swarm to the football and play group defense.”
Kellogg III is a fifth-year senior, and Armstrong is a redshirt freshman.
“I think they throw the ball extremely well,” Beckman said. “They’re good quarterbacks.”
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The three Illinois buses arrived at Memorial Stadium about 6:15 p.m. Friday. Players, coaches and other staff personnel all came off the buses in suits, a change from what Beckman has done in the past.
“We decided this was going to be a business trip for us,” Beckman said. “We’ve talked about it as a football team, and we thought it would be good to see what the players can take out of their closets with their new suits.”
Beckman joked that offensive coordinator Bill Cubit packed four different suits.
“His bag was bigger than anybody else’s on the team,” Beckman said with a laugh.
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Illinois’ team flight landed at Lincoln Airport shortly after 5:30 p.m.
A short bus ride from the airport to Memorial Stadium allowed the players and coaches to familiarize themselves with a venue Illinois has not played at since 1985. Well before any of the players were born.
“It’s for the quarterbacks to understand where (the play clocks are), and of course we go to the locker room so everyone knows where to go for halftime,” Beckman said. “It’s to just get used to it. Because we don’t have anybody that’s been there to play in one, I want them to go and see it. It’s great for the kids. This is the second opportunity for me to coach here and a great, great facility and fan base.”
Illinois was only at Memorial Stadium for roughly 15 minutes, much shorter than what a typical home walkthrough, which Illinois went through before it departed from Champaign. The team stayed at the Country Inn and Suites on Friday night in Lincoln, with the optional team movie of “Olympus Has Fallen,” showing.
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V’Angelo Bentley, Corey Lewis, Nathan Scheelhaase and Austin Teitsma will serve as Illinois’ captains today. This is the third captain’s honor for Scheelhaase this season, second for both Bentley and Lewis and first for Teitsma. Illinois players vote on who the team captains will be before the game every Thursday.
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Illinois will wear white jersey tops for the first time all season today. Beckman said the Illini will go with white pants and their orange helmet with the navy blue Block I against the Cornhuskers.
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No real surprises in terms of the Illinois injury report. Defensive tackle Teko Powell will miss his second straight game with a foot injury, and freshman defensive tackle Bryce Douglas — whom Beckman has said he plans to redshirt — is out as well. Center Tony Durkin (shoulder) and linebacker Henry Dickinson (leg) are out with season-ending injuries.
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The game-time temperature today will present a different set of circumstances than Illinois has encountered this season. A cold front moved through Lincoln late this week, and temperatures are slated to sit in the mid-40s at kickoff, with wind a concern for Beckman.
“We tried to do some things into the wind (at practice this week), and then it died all of a sudden,” Beckman said. “You look out the window earlier and see how the wind’s blowing. You want to make sure you’ve got so many punts into the wind and against the wind. Of course, you come out on the field and the wind stops.”
Lewis is happy to see the cooler temperatures.
“I’m sure the sun will be out, but I’m looking forward to not being as tired,” he said. “I still don’t know what football weather is. They say 70 degrees and sunny is football weather, and then they say snowy is football weather, but I’m looking forward to it.”
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Offensive line coach A.J. Ricker, who played at Nebraska twice during his career at Missouri, knows his group needs to start fast — something he didn’t think the offensive line did a good job of in the only other game this year away from Champaign, against Washington at Soldier Field in Chicago.
“I think we were a bit shell-shocked when we played Washington, and the whole environment kind of overtook us a little bit,” Ricker said. “We can’t get engulfed in all the atmosphere.”
A true freshman could see a few snaps on the offensive line. Austin Schmidt is currently backing up Lewis at right tackle.
“I never thought I’d play a true freshman in the Big Ten, but he’s coming along,” Ricker said. “Corey really does a good job mentoring him, too. (Schmidt is) obviously not the size you want yet. He’s got to gain a lot of weight, but he knows what he’s doing, he’s smart and he’s nasty.”
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Scheelhaase expects a large family contingent today. It’s about a three-hour drive from Kansas City, Mo., to Lincoln, and Scheelhaase is familiar with the surroundings at Memorial Stadium. Nebraska was one of the schools that heavily recruited Scheelhaase coming out of Kansas City Rockhurst High School.
“I visited Nebraska a few times,” Scheelhaase said. “Probably as much as any other school besides Illinois.”
Bill Callahan was the Nebraska coach who first made contact with Scheelhaase before Pelini took control of the Cornhuskers’ program and kept recruiting the quarterback.
“I went to a game there when they played No. 1 USC at the time (in 2007),” Scheelhaase said. “I went to a sold-out spring game there, too, so I’ve been around that stadium a couple times and obviously am excited for the next visit.”
Today’s homecoming game for the Cornhuskers marks the 330th straight sellout at Memorial Stadium. An offseason expansion has increased the capacity to more than 90,000, and the program’s top four crowds have happened this season.
“It’s one of the top venues you could ever be in,” Scheelhaase said. “There’s not much that will have to be said in the locker room or said on the field before the game to get everybody going. There will be enough electricity in that stadium that everybody will be ready to go.”
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Much like the Illinois players, John Congemi is making his first trip to Lincoln for a game. The former Pittsburgh quarterback, who succeeded Dan Marino as the Panthers’ starter and stands second all time in career passing yards at the school, will serve as the ESPNU analyst on today’s broadcast.
Congemi, who will be joined by play-by-play broadcaster Tom Hart, balances his work with ESPN along with his duties as a pregame, halftime and postgame radio analyst covering the Miami Dolphins. He has worked that gig since 2010 and started serving as an analyst on ESPNU games when the station began in 2005.
Congemi has called his share of ACC games this year (Florida Atlantic at Miami on Aug. 30, Marshall at Virginia Tech on Sept. 21 and Miami at South Florida last Saturday) but is familiar with the Big Ten. Today is the third Big Ten game of the season for him after he worked Michigan State’s 21-6 win against South Florida on Sept. 7 and Indiana’s 42-10 win against Bowling Green on Sept. 14.
Now living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the 49-year-old may have made his name in the Big East but was raised in Youngstown, Ohio, just like Nebraska coach Pelini.
“I grew up a fan of the Big Ten,” Congemi said. “It’s always fun to watch it because the atmosphere is the best thing. It’s very consistent throughout the Big Ten. As an analyst, I can soak that in now as opposed to when I was playing and you’d go to South Bend, you couldn’t really enjoy the pageantry.”