No. 15 Cornhuskers aim to continue perfect start vs. Ilinois
The Illinois Fighting Illini (1-2) travel to Lincoln, Neb., to take on the No. 15 Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2) following a bye week. Despite a 4-0 start, the Cornhuskers could probably use a week off, too.
Now nearly a full month into the season, injuries are starting to mount for Nebraska, particularly along its offensive line.
After losing a projected starter in Jerald Foster to a season-ending knee injury during fall camp, the Huskers were already thin on an offensive front that featured three new starters and two others taking over new positions.
Now it looks like Nebraska (4-0 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) might be down another starter this week against Illinois (1-2, 0-0), as sophomore right guard Tanner Farmer is considered doubtful and mostly likely out after suffering a high ankle sprain in Saturday's 24-13 win over Northwestern.
“Tanner is probably out,” head coach Mike Riley said. “It's a high ankle sprain. He might need right through the bye to be healthy for the following week. So we'll see about that.”
Nebraska was already using a former tackle in senior walk-on Sam Hahn to replace Foster at left guard, and while senior Corey Whitaker would take over for Farmer if he is indeed ruled out, the depth after that suddenly becomes a major concern.
Riley said right now the top backups at guard would be true freshman Boe Wilson and redshirt freshman Jalin Barnett, neither of which have played a single meaningful snap in their college careers.
In fact, while Wilson was briefly in the discussion for immediate playing time before the season, Riley had since stated he wanted to redshirt the former three-star prospect in 2016. Barnett, a former four-star recruit, has been plagued by minor injuries in his own right.
“It's just kind of the next man up kind of thing,” Hahn said. “If somebody goes down, it's next person up to step up and make plays. We just have to get prepared in practice every day and take it from there.”
The good news is that the Huskers feel good about Whitaker — who earned one of the highest grades of any Husker offensive lineman after filling in for Farmer at Northwestern — stepping into the starting lineup.
But the lack of depth after the first group could present some problems this week against an Illinois defensive line that Riley called the best Nebraska will have seen all season.
“We've lost two scout team players as a matter of fact, so our offensive line depth right now is not great,” Riley said. “We've got to get this lineup set for this week and figure out how to practice for our defense, too, as we go through the week.”
Riley won't get much sympathy from his former NFL head coaching colleague Lovie Smith at Illinois. The Fighting Illini come in off a 25-point loss to North Carolina and a 24-point loss to Western Michigan, and Smith decided to have the team go through a full contact practice on Tuesday to get ready for the Huskers.
“You try to hit on all phases of your game; special teams, of course the offense, defense,” Smith said when asked what he hoped to accomplish during the bye week. “We've given up some big plays; we haven't made enough big plays on the other side of the ball. (We're) just really tightening the bolts on who we want to be. Not just in one area, it was all of us looking in the mirror. I think it's pretty obvious on what we need to do better; that's what we concentrated on.”
No doubt one major emphasis for the Illini is trying to come up with a game plan to defend Nebraska's dual-threat quarterback Tommy Armstrong.
Armstrong accounted for 378 yards of total offense in Nebraska's victory at Northwestern, including setting a career-high with 132 rushing yards on just 13 carries en route to Big Ten Conference Offensive Player of the Week honors. Armstrong has now rushed for 227 yards over the past two games, and his running ability and Nebraska's willingness to use it has completely changed the identity of the Husker offense.
Nebraska is averaging 242.0 rushing yards per game to rank third in the Big Ten and 21st nationally. The Cornhuskers had a season-high 310 rushing yards at Northwestern and have rushed for at least 200 yards in three of four games.
But Nebraska is also among the nation's most balanced offensive attacks. The Huskers are also averaging 243.0 passing yards per game and 485.0 total yards per game, which ranks 23rd in the nation.