A couple teams trying to establish some mojo meet when Nebraska hosts Illinois on Saturday.
Both programs are in building mode, and both are coming off their first wins.
“Guys in this building can’t win one and relax,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said. “They have to let that elevate them and go back out on the field and and work that much harder to get even better and keep moving this ball down the field.”
Illinois (1-3, 1-3 Big Ten) has played consecutive road games 10 of the last 12 seasons and hasn’t won both since knocking off Minnesota and Ohio State in back-to-back weeks in 2007.
Fifth-year Illini coach Lovie Smith, coming off a win at Rutgers last week, said he wants to see if his team can take the next step. Illinois has 25 seniors this season, more than the combined 21 on the rosters for the last two seasons.
“As you get older you’re supposed to not just win one game but put a couple games together, supposed to be able to go on the road and win two games instead of just getting one win,” Smith said.
The Cornhuskers (1-2, 1-2) beat Penn State at home last week and are expected to start redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey at quarterback again.
Illinois’ quarterback situation has been jumbled because of a COVID-19 outbreak on the team.
Senior Brandon Peters, who started the opener against Wisconsin, is available after sitting out three weeks because of the virus. Redshirt freshman Isaiah Williams started against Rutgers and ran 31 times for a school quarterback-record 195 yards and a touchdown.
“Of course I’m not going to say what our game plan will be,” Smith said. “I would say we have some good options.”
Nebraska had to rally from 14 points down in the third quarter against a bruising Illini defense to win 42-38 in Champaign, Illinois, last year. The Huskers had 674 yards, their highest output ever in a Big Ten game.
“We ended up winning the game, but the guys were sore after,” Frost said. “They did a good job running and hitting. They hit our receivers. They played physical up front and you wouldn’t expect anything less from a Lovie Smith-coached team.”
The Huskers have scored on the opening drive in two of their three games, including last week. Nebraska has scored on its first possession 13 times in 27 games under Frost (12 touchdowns, one field goal).
Smith said the Illini have become a better tackling team, and the numbers from Pro Football Focus back him up. There were only five missed tackles against Rutgers, and the four-game average of 8.5 is down four per game from 2019.
Nebraska played into Illinois’ “Lovie Ball” mantra last year with four lost fumbles, its most in five years. The Illini are ball-hawking again this year. They’ve recovered eight fumbles, and their average of two per game is first in the nation. Last year they were fourth in takeaways with 28.
Nebraska has moved to the west sideline for its home games. Taking the west side means the Huskers’ backs are to the opposing coaches in the press box.
“It’s really easy with us signaling things in for people to be able to see the east sideline from the coaches’ box,” Frost said. “We wanted to make sure we did everything we could to protect our signals, particularly when there’s less chaos in the stadium.”
According to Nebraska football historian Mike Babcock, Bob Devaney began the tradition of using the east sideline when he became coach in 1962. Athletic director Bill Moos said on his radio show this week that the team would return to the east sideline when fans return to the stadium.
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