Illinois to open new season, era against Nebraska

Coach+Bret+Bielema+talks+to+the+Illini+football+team+during+Training+Camp+on+Aug.+7.+The+team+is+set+to+start+their+season+against+Nebraska+at+Memorial+Stadium+on+Saturday+afternoon.

Photo by David Craan/Illinois Athletics

Coach Bret Bielema talks to the Illini football team during Training Camp on Aug. 7. The team is set to start their season against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

After a long offseason ripe with change, the Illini will open their season by hosting Nebraska at Memorial Stadium this Saturday at noon. This will be the first college football game in the NCAA this fall and will have full capacity.

Nebraska went a paltry 3-5 last season, but head coach Bret Bielema made it clear he didn’t want to underestimate his opponent in his first game at the helm with the Illini.

“One of my big mantras is 1-0, to take every game just one day at a time,” Bielema said. “Then, you work your way to the next opportunity. I think our players have bought into that. They have been focused on Nebraska back to December and January. You’ve been going through the spring, going through early fall camp. I was very clear to them before we can learn how to beat Nebraska, we have to learn how to play Illinois football and what that means. Our results on Saturday are going to be hopefully a direct reflection of how well Illinois football plays Illinois football.”

Offensively, the Cornhuskers ranked 12th in the Big Ten with 23.1 points per game last season. Illinois, meanwhile, had the 13th ranked defense last season, giving up 34.9 points per game, so there will certainly be a lot riding on Bielema’s ability to turn the defense around quickly.

Last season, both teams saw most of their success on the ground, with Nebraska and Illinois ranking second and third, respectively, in rushing offense in the Big Ten. The Illini may find themselves at a disadvantage here, as they ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing 230.1 yards per game. Nebraska ranked ninth with 169.5 rushing yards allowed per game.

It is important to note that Nebraska isn’t returning their second, third or fourth leading rushers from last season and may end up having to start a freshman at running back. Their starting quarterback, Adrian Martinez, was their leading rusher and may be heavily relied upon to carry the offensive load on Saturday.

“Martinez is a very gifted player, very creative,” Bielema said. “Going back over the last couple years, he’s a player that’s been recognized as a captain. He’s the only three-time captain in Nebraska history. Regardless of their record, their history over the last three years, he’s a guy that’s been a mainstay for them. Obviously, he has the eyes and ears of not only his players but his coaches.”

Fortunately for the Illini, continuity is one of the primary weapons they have on their side. Illinois is returning almost the same roster it had last season and will have its entire roster — aside from three players — fully vaccinated by game day. However, Bielema is holding his depth chart close to his vest.

“I’m not going to put out an official depth chart,” Bielema said. “Just going into this game (with) what we’re able to do and how we’re able to do it, I feel it’s in our best interest to stay in that neutral mode. I will say that obviously there’s guys that you know are going to start. Like the six guys that are captains are probably going to be named starters. Brandon Peters will be our QB1 for sure.”

With so many seniors returning this season, it’d be surprising to see much change at all, but Bielema’s decision to withhold the depth chart may suggest he has something up his sleeve. Bielema made it clear he did not expect to have almost any injuries heading into the matchup.

In his first game on the sideline in Champaign, the stakes aren’t exactly the highest of any game Bielema has coached. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Bielema only has one chance at a first impression, and delivering a win could signify the beginning of a seismic shift in Illinois’ standing within the Big Ten.

“(The offseason had) moments of high stress but also moments of a lot of levity and a lot of fun,” Bielema said. “I think that’s just part of growing and building a relationship. But I know this: When we come off that field on Saturday, we’ll know a lot about who we are by the actions of our four quarters and how we react to moments of adversity as well as success.”

@WesHollenberg

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