The Illinois football offense faces off against a familiar defense this weekend

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Karolina Marczewski

Illinois’ Josh Ferguson (6) gets tackled during the game against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Oct 3, 2015. The Illini won 14-13.

By Cole Henke, staff writer

In the first 59 minutes and nine seconds of last season’s game against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois, the Illinois offense was not able to do much against Nebraska’s defense. The Illini had totaled 310 yards but only scored seven points.

But in the last 51 seconds of the game, the Illini offense had the Cornhuskers’ number. The Illini got the ball back down six points with less than a minute remaining. Quarterback Wes Lunt needed only 41 of the 51 seconds to dissect the Nebraska defense and complete a pass to wide receiver Geronimo Allison to win the game.

Now, a year later, Lunt will get another shot at virtually the same defensive personnel.

“It is basically the same defense from last year,” Lunt said. “I know they were a good group, and it came down to the wire against them. Knowing that we can compete with them builds confidence. Now we just need to have a good week in practice. ”

The Cornhuskers are returning huge percentages in production on the defensive side of the ball. Players that returned this year contributed to 74.4 percent of tackles, 77 percent of tackles for a loss, 70.8 percent of sacks, 90 percent of interceptions, 62 percent of pass breakups, 80 percent of fumble recoveries and 100 percent of fumbles forced last season.

The Illini have not forgotten the way last season’s game against the Cornhuskers ended. It was a marquee win for them.

The team is now in need of another confidence booster because it is trending downward after losing the last two games to close out the non-conference schedule.

During last week’s bye week, the Illinois offense spent the bye week finetuning bits and pieces of its game plan.

The offense has been struggling recently, especially the running game. According to offensive lineman and team captain Joe Spencer, the offensive line was “embarrassed” against Western Michigan, and they also used the bye week to get better. There was no huge overhaul—only improvements on the same areas they’ve been working on all year.

This will be the third time Spencer visits Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, and he is ready for another shot at a Nebraska defensive line that has returned a lot of players.

“They are a similar defense,” Spencer said. “Up front, they have hard workers on the edge, and big guys in the middle. Offensively, we are still putting in the game plan. It will be finalized (Tuesday). But there are ways to attack them, and I am sure they are saying the same thing about us.“

The Illinois offensive line was not at full strength against Western Michigan. Freshman Gabe Megginson has missed the Illini’s last two games with a leg injury. Head coach Lovie Smith “hopes” that Megginson will be available for Saturday’s game.

The Illini offensive line will be staring down a familiar opponent in the Nebraska defensive line, who returned many players from last season. The Illini will also be fighting off a linebacker core in which each player started at least three games last season.

While the Illini will be recognizing the opponent they played last year, the venue will not be the same. It will be a totally different Memorial Stadium from last season, since the Illini will be traveling to Lincoln.

The attendance at last year’s game against Nebraska in Champaign drew a crowd of 40,138 people. The average attendance at Nebraska football games last season was 89,998 people. The Illini are in for a much bigger crowd than they are used to, but playing in a historic place like Memorial Stadium in Lincoln is exciting for Spencer.

“It will be a fun atmosphere,” Spencer said. “It will be exciting. They always have the biggest crowds. It is always fun going to play there.”