Reaching across enemy lines: Nebraska

By The Daily Illini Football Staff

Editor’s note: Every week, The Daily Illini football staff will chat with a sports editor or football beat reporter from an opposing school’s paper. Up this week is senior sports editor of The Daily Nebraskan, Josh Kelly.

Daily Illini: How has the transition with the new coach been?

Josh Kelly: The transition for the team has been smooth in terms of getting along with the new coaching staff. Coach Mike Riley brought in some personable assistants who specialize a little bit more than the last staff. The biggest problem for them has been adjusting to the schematics. 

The offense is playing at a slower tempo, which has resulted in less production from the running game. Defensively, the secondary has yet to grasp defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s system. He prefers man coverage, which has resulted in a few cornerbacks getting beaten at the line and allowing more than a few long passes.  A few areas have progressed while a few have regressed, which is common with transitions similar to this.

DI:  How different is Tommy Armstrong Jr. compared to when the two teams met last year?

JK: As a passer, Tommy Armstrong Jr. has made huge strides. The junior is on pace to have career numbers this season. So far, he’s surpassed 300 yards in three out of Nebraska’s four games this season. Last season, he only accomplished that once, which was the Holiday Bowl against USC. His QB rating is at its highest right now (146.8) as well as his completion percentage (58.9). He’s running the ball a lot less, but he seems to be adjusting better than anyone else.

DI:  Has the running game regressed with the departure of Ameer Abdullah?

JK: Yes, the running game has regressed greatly since Ameer Abdullah left for the NFL last season. Coach Riley is known for favoring the quarterback, but running backs such as Jacquizz Rodgers and Steven Jackson have thrived under him during his time at Oregon State. The thing about Nebraska right now is that there isn’t a standout back. A lot of them had promise coming out of high school, but none of them have been able to meet their potential. The leading rusher, Terrell Newby, had a solid game against South Alabama, but struggled in the other three games. Last week against Southern Mississippi, Nebraska involved fullback Andy Janovich more and he was a monster. Janovich had a career-high 121 all-purpose yards. He had a pair of 25-plus yard runs when the Huskers ran the fullback trap. He adds another dimension, but he’s not a player who will lead the team in rushes.

DI: What is the main reason for the secondary’s struggles?

JK: The secondary has been the ugliest part of this season. Early on, senior Daniel Davie was set as the No. 1 corner for Nebraska, but he gave up more big passes than anyone else. For the last three seasons, the Huskers have had three different secondary coaches and they had to add coach Brian Stewart after Charlton Warren left for North Carolina. But coach Mark Banker has a react and attack philosophy that he’s been trying to instill, and for the defensive backs, it hasn’t been two beneficial on their part.

DI: Is there any hype of playing in Champaign for the first time since 1986?

JK: Not really. There isn’t a whole lot of history to the matchup. The two teams have only faced each other 12 times. If you ask the average Husker fan the last time the team traveled to Champaign, they probably won’t give you a correct answer. The annual game will be more entertaining once the teams are used to facing each other. There’s only been two games where Illinois and Nebraska have been conference opponents.

DI: Will Nebraska fans travel to Champaign for the game?

JK: There’ll be a decent amount of people traveling to Champaign. Nebraska fans travel pretty well, especially with these Big Ten games. There’ll be more fans at this game then the Rutgers game in New Jersey this November. Indeed it is the first time in Champaign for a long time for Nebraska, so there’ll be a fair number of fans making the trip this weekend. They’ll stick out for sure in this pairing. 

Follow Josh Kelly on Twitter

@joshgunnarkelly