Illinois opens conference play against Nebraska

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Tyler Courtney | The Daily Illin

Illinois running back Josh Ferguson takes off down the field after breaking through the line of scrimmage during a game against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium.

By Joey Figueroa, Staff writer

Much has changed within the Illinois football program since last year.

One of the few instances of continuity involves its Week Five opponent — No. 15 Nebraska.

Nearly a year removed from the Illini’s 14-13 comeback win over the Cornhuskers — a win known for an outstanding Wes Lunt to Geronimo Allison touchdown  — the two teams are set to face off again.

The Cornhuskers enter the matchup undefeated and with the luxury of hosting at their own Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska.

While Week Two’s loss to North Carolina marked Illinois’ first sellout crowd in five years, Saturdays in Lincoln revolve around football. The Cornhuskers have played in front of an FBS-record 350 consecutive sellout crowds, with a capacity of about 90,000 fans every week.

The Illinois coaching staff hopes the intensity of the atmosphere serves as motivation for the Illini.

“It’s just one of those atmospheres that college football’s all about,” offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. “These are the types of environments that you talk about playing in. When you’re in the front yard, you dream about playing in front of a packed house, everybody against you.”

Illinois is in a unique situation; many players have more experience at opposing Big Ten stadiums than the coaching staff. Senior captain Joe Spencer was there for the Illini’s 45-14 loss at Nebraska two seasons ago.

“It’s a tough atmosphere,” Spencer said. “We’ve just got to go in there and control what we can control. You can’t control the sound, you can’t control who’s there, but we’ll just keep it within ourselves. It’ll be a great opportunity for us to come together offensively and as a team.”

Aside from a rabid fanbase, Illinois’ biggest challenge on Saturday could come in the form of Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong.

The fourth-year play-caller hasn’t fared particularly well against Illinois throughout his career. In last season’s matchup, Armstrong went 10-for-31 with one interception. The Texas native seems to have put it all together in his senior season. He has eight total touchdowns and 281 yards on the ground through four games, which is over half of the 400 yards he had last year.

Head coach Lovie Smith seems impressed with Armstrong and even called him the best running quarterback the Illini will face this season.

“He really can beat you,” Smith said. “Last week they were about as balanced running and passing the ball as you can get, and a lot of it has to do with their quarterback. He’s one of the better players in our conference, and you can see why.”

Illinois’ defensive line remains near the top of the NCAA in terms of sacks and tackles for loss per game and will face one of its toughest challenges thus far Saturday.

Armstrong’s dual threat capability reminded defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson of his days in the NFL when he was tasked with chasing down slippery passers like Michael Vick.

“He presents lots of problems, especially in the passing game where you’re playing coverage and then you have to worry about him slipping through the rush and getting down the field and making plays,” Nickerson said.

Last season’s one-point win over Nebraska was a highlight to an otherwise forgettable season. The Illini hope to find themselves in the position to recreate some of the same magic again this year.

“It was a battle last year, a war,” Spencer said. “That one came down to the end. If we put ourselves in the position to win it in the fourth quarter, which is a goal, we’ll go from there.”

[email protected]  @joeyfigueroa