Illinois football looks for its first winning streak of the season Saturday at Nebraska. If Lovie Smith’s team pulls it off, it will be the school’s first win in Lincoln, Neb., since 1924. Here’s what I am thinking before the 11 a.m. kickoff at the other Memorial Stadium:
➜ 1. First things first: Who is going to be the Illinois starting quarterback? Isaiah Williams just had the best rushing game for a quarterback in school history. And the Illini won. But Brandon Peters is eligible to play again after getting COVID-19 and sitting the last three games. Go with the senior.
➜ 2. Certainly, Peters will be eager to get back on the field. And based on what the Illini coaches said, he has continued to work on his game during quarantine. His last time out, a loss at Wisconsin, didn’t go very well. But I’m thinking that was more because of the Badgers’ stellar defense and some breakdowns by the Illinois offense. Peters didn’t have much of a chance.
➜ 3. Williams is going to play. The only question is how much. Of course, the Illinois coaches want the other side to think that, forcing Nebraska to spend valuable practice time preparing for a totally different style quarterback. There is a reason Lovie and Rod Smith didn’t announce the starter.
➜ 4. Little mystery exists about who will open at quarterback for Nebraska. Luke McCaffrey, Christian’s younger brother, started against Penn State and led the team to its first win. McCaffrey is a thrower/runner who forced his way into the lineup with a solid second-half effort at Northwestern.
➜ 5. Fine with the Illini. They got their fill of Adrian Martinez the last two years. In 2019, he helped Nebraska rally for a victory, throwing for 328 yards and running for another 118. In 2018, Martinez threw for 290 and ran for 55. If he played only the Illini, Martinez might be a Heisman favorite.
“I’m sure he is anxious to play us again,” Smith said. “McCaffrey is an excellent football player. He can pass the football. He’s good in space. It’s a different dimension when you have a guy like that leading their offense.”
➜ 6. Smith is aware of Nebraska’s success against his teams. He is 0-4 against the Cornhuskers.
“They’ve played outstanding football the last couple times we’ve played,” Smith said. “That’s why we are anxious to see if we can slow them down just a little bit more than we have in the past.”
➜ 7. As was pointed out when I asked about ending the road streak against Nebraska, the teams haven’t played very often. From 1926 to 2012, Illinois and Nebraska met only three times. Once in Lincoln.
“I don’t talk much about what happened during Red Grange’s time,” Smith said. “I don’t think it means that much at all. It means something to the players that were there two years ago (a 54-34 Nebraska win). It’s about this group. That’s enough to keep us motivated.”
➜ 8. The numbers tell you Nebraska’s defense isn’t playing as well as the 2019 model, giving up 47 more yards per game.
➜ 9. But Cornhusker watchers swear the defense is performing better. We’ll see.
➜ 10. Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon has become a turnover machine. He has interceptions in back-to-back games, the first such instance in his career.
“He’s as competitive as anyone around. He’s the toughest guy we have on our team pound for pound. He does everything you want him to do,” Smith said. “Going against a team like Nebraska, he’ll get another chance this week.”
➜ 11. Illinois intercepted only one pass in the first three games, but picked three against Rutgers. No doubt the team doesn’t get its first win without the thefts.
➜ 12. Nationally, Illinois zoomed to a tie for 57th in interceptions. Nebraska has three in three games.
➜ 13. Another stat that matters for the Illinois defense: third-down conversions. Opponents have been successful 51 percent of the time, putting Illinois 115th nationally in the category. Nebraska is not much better, allowing opponents to convert 50 percent of the time.
➜ 14. A good day at Rutgers boosted Blake Hayes’ season punting average to 43.1, which is 36th in the nation. Going into the season, his career average was 43.4.
➜ 15. Yes, James McCourt missed two field goals at Rutgers before his game-winner. But Smith said he didn’t lose any faith.
“It’s always about the next play,” he said. “You can’t live in the past. We have history with James. He’s a good kicker. Sometimes you miss a few.”
➜ 16. This is the third road game of the season for the Illini, who earlier traveled to Wisconsin and Rutgers. No changes planned in the way they operate.
“Everything has gone about as good as it could have gone,” Smith said. “You go to the hotel and there’s nobody in it pretty much, except for us.”
➜ 17. With a big game at Rutgers, tailback Chase Brown earned himself more carries. I also expect Illinois to get the ball more to Mike Epstein, who had 10 tries at Rutgers. If Williams doesn’t play as much, which I think will be the case, there will be more carries to divvy up. Of course, Peters will take his share.
➜ 18. Four players caught passes for the Illini against Rutgers. Casey Washington led the way with three grabs for 52 yards. His catch on the final drive set up McCourt’s game-winner.
➜ 19. What was going through Washington’s mind during McCourt’s game-winner? “I knew he was going to make it because I know who he is,” the Illini wide receiver said. “He doesn’t let those mistakes get in his way. He stays mentally tough. I give him major props for that.”
➜ 20. Prediction time: Both teams might use two quarterbacks. Both teams are struggling to score points. On a cold, rainy day in Lincoln, the defenses win.
Nebraska 20, Illinois 14.
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.