Illini open Big Ten play at Nebraska

When the Illinois football team takes on Nebraska this weekend in Lincoln, Neb., there will be an ugly streak on the line for the Illini.

Illinois (3-1) has lost 14 consecutive conference games dating back to the 2011 season — a season where the Illini won their first six games, only to finish the regular season 6-6.

“It’s definitely something we think about,” offensive tackle Corey Lewis said. “But is it the only thing we think about? No. We’ve just got to take it one game at a time.”

This week’s contest will be the first road test of the season as well as the conference opener for Illinois, who had three of its first four games at home. The Illini played Washington at a neutral site at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sept. 14.

Coming into the contest, the Cornhuskers (3-1) have questions about who will be under center on game day.

Four-year starting quarterback Taylor Martinez’s status for the game is uncertain, as he is battling through a turf toe injury sustained after the team’s loss to UCLA on Sept. 14. He then missed the team’s 59-20 victory over South Dakota State on Sept. 21.

If Martinez is unable to play, Nebraska has viable backups. In their last game, the Huskers used two different signal callers. Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong and senior Ron Kellogg III split time at quarterback but both were successful. The Huskers racked up 645 yards of total offense and pulled away by halftime.

“I think Taylor will play,” head coach Tim Beckman said. “We watched the South Dakota State game and the other two quarterbacks that played were outstanding.”

Martinez is primarily known for his rushing ability as a quarterback during his career. He rushed for a combined 2,858 yards in his first three seasons under center; although, his dependence on running makes his turf toe injury even more concerning.

The Illini had a tune-up game last Saturday against Miami (Ohio) when the Redhawks featured two rushing quarterbacks in a run-based offense. Miami quarterbacks rushed 23 times on the game for 94 yards and the Illini defense held Miami to 250 total yards.

With or without Martinez, Nebraska will feature a running game that ranks 14th in the country with 280.8 yards per game. Returning starter Ameer Abdullah already has 465 rushing yards on the year, following a season where he accumulated 1,137 yards in 2012. Abdullah has rushed for over 100 yards in three of the first four games; the only contest where he didn’t hit the century mark was a 98-yard effort against UCLA.

This game marks the first conference game between Illinois and Nebraska. The teams haven’t faced each other since 1986, when the Huskers won 59-14 in Champaign.

Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.