Illinois takes on Nebraska for first time as Big 10 opponent

6:47 AM, Oct 5, 2013   |    comments
Sep 28, 2013; Champaign, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (2) prepares to take a snap during the first quarter against the Miami Redhawks at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports
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(KSDK Sports) -- For the first time as Big Ten Conference opponents, the Nebraska Cornhuskers will face the Illinois Fighting Illini as the two are set to square off Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium.

This marks the conference opener for both teams, and it is the first true road game of the season for Illinois. The Fighting Illini are looking to snap a 14- game conference losing streak dating back to 2011, although they have already eclipsed last year's win total with a 3-1 start after non-league play. They are coming off last weekend's 50-14 rout of Miami-Ohio.

Nebraska is coming off a bye and will have had two weeks to prepare. In their last action, the Cornhuskers wrapped up the non-league portion of their schedule with a 59-20 win over South Dakota State on Sept. 21. Saturday's Homecoming contest concludes the team's five-game homestand.

Nebraska leads the all-time series, 7-2-1, although this marks the first meeting between these two schools since 1986.

The Illinois offense is averaging a robust 478.5 yards and 40.2 points per contest, and the team has scored a school-record 161 points over its first four games.

The proverbial light bulb has seemingly illuminated for fourth-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who is completing 67 percent of his passes while averaging nearly 300 passing yards per game. Scheelhaase leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency (174.8, 10th), passing yards per game (290.5, 17th) and total offense (298.3 ypg, 27th) through four games. Last week against Miami, he set a school record for TD passes in a quarter when he threw four in the second quarter. For comparison, he totaled four TD passes in 10 starts all of last season.

The leader of the Illini defense is senior linebacker and Butkus Award candidate Jonathan Brown, who currently leads the Big Ten and ranks sixth nationally in tackles per game (11.8). Sophomore linebacker Mason Monheim is right on his heels, ranking second in the conference with 9.5 stops per game. That duo is to the defense what Scheelhaase has been to the offense.

As a unit, however, Illinois has had its struggles defending the pass until limiting Miami to only 95 passing yards last week. Still, Illinois ranks 97th nationally with 271.5 passing yards per game allowed. The Illini have notched only one interception on the season, a total they certainly hope to increase in this matchup. Despite giving up yards between the 20s, opponents have failed to score a touchdown in seven of 16 trips inside the red zone.

Nebraska's offense put on a clinic against South Dakota State, piling up 34 first downs to go along with 335 rushing yards and 310 passing yards to mark the first time in school history the team went over 300 yards in both rushing and passing. The 645 yards of total offense is the highest total in six seasons under coach Bo Pelini, and it marked the second time this season the Cornhuskers managed to eclipse 50 points on the scoreboard.

While the gaudy numbers came against an opponent from the FCS, they also came without injured starting quarterback Taylor Martinez, who is probable for Saturday's game with a foot injury. In his place against South Dakota State, Tommy Armstrong, Jr. and Ron Kellogg III combined to complete 20-of-24 passes for 305 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Ameer Abdullah tacked on 139 rushing yards and a score.

The defense has been another story for Nebraska, last Saturday's blowout win not withstanding. The unit enters Saturday's contest ranked 107th in the nation in total defense (463.8 ypg) and is allowing an average of 27.0 points per game. On the ground, opponents have averaged a healthy 4.9 yards per carry. The Huskers have also allowed 284.2 passing yards per game, although they have been able to generate nine interceptions.

Stanley Jean-Baptiste is among the national leaders with four interceptions, while teammate Ciante Evans has three. In the win over South Dakota State, Nebraska tallied five sacks and a pair of interceptions. However, Jackrabbits running back Zach Zenner went off for 202 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns on 21 carries.

This matchup has all the makings of a high-scoring shootout, as both offenses can score in bunches while both defenses have been a bit too generous at times. Give a slight edge to the Cornhuskers, who are playing at home and have won 35-of-38 league openers.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Nebraska 45, Illinois 35

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