- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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Bo Pelini doesn’t remember the day. Only the message.
It was last Thursday or Friday, with several of his position coaches on the road to recruit as Nebraska progressed through a bye week. Pelini, the head coach of six years and a former defensive coordinator, met with his linebackers and defensive backs to review practice from the previous day.
They talked long and hard about the mistakes, much of it the same stuff that has plagued the Huskers through four games to the tune of 25 first downs allowed per outing, 463 yards and a field goal short of 30 points.
Then on Sunday as the 3-1 Huskers, who host 3-1 Illinois on Saturday (noon ET, ESPNU), returned to practice, Pelini said he watched in amazement as some of those identical mistakes resurfaced.
“The exact same things we talked about,” Pelini said. “It came back to eye discipline. It came back to reading your keys. It came back to your focus. It’s why you have to keep putting them through it.
“That’s why every single day and every single rep are important.”
His point? There’s no replacement for experience.
The Nebraska defenders don’t have much of it. Their opponent on Saturday is led by a quarterback with a career full of experience -- good, bad and downright miserable.
Senior Nathan Scheelhaase, the fourth-year Fighting Illini starter, owns an edge in the Big Ten opener for both teams over the Nebraska defense in a category that remains out of the Huskers’ control.
Only time can close the experience gap for Pelini’s youthful defenders. And time, it seems, is running thin for the Blackshirts, with three October games to grow up before a difficult November stretch arrives.
For now, it’s about surviving Scheelhaase, the one-time Husker recruiting prospect out of Kansas City, Mo., who has enjoyed a rebirth this season in operating the Illinois offense.
Scheelhaase versus the Nebraska defense: the matchup appears one-sided in favor Illinois. How it unfolds on Saturday will loom large in the Illini’s upset bid against a Nebraska team that looks vulnerable, in large part, because of its leaky pass defense.
The Huskers have surrendered 284.3 yards per game through the air to rank 105th nationally out of 123 FBS teams. Nebraska ranks 85th in allowing opponents to complete 63 percent of their throws, and Husker foes Wyoming, Southern Miss, UCLA and South Dakota State have averaged 8.42 yards per pass attempt to rank 106th.
“I’m a realist,” Pelini said, “and I knew what we were going to be facing and what we were going to continue to face as the season goes on. I expect us to get better.”
Meanwhile, Scheelhaase averages 9.52 yards per pass attempt to rank 13th nationally. He leads the Big Ten in completions and passing yardage, and his 12 touchdown passes rank second in the league to Ohio State backup Kenny Guiton.
It represents a significant reversal for Scheelhaase, who threw just four touchdown passes, with eight interceptions, a year ago in 10 games as Illinois lost its final eight games under first-year coach Tim Beckman.
New offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has helped the QB raise his completion percentage to a career-best 67.2.
In addition to the struggles of 2012, Scheelhaase endured the Illini collapse in 2011, when it started 6-0 but lost six straight to end the regular season, costing coach Ron Zook his job.
Predictably, all of it helped shape the Scheelhaase of today.
“I’ve grown a lot from the good times and the tough times,” he said. “I’ve learned to seize the moment when it’s there. And when you’re playing with a bunch of guys who’ve been through the experience of ups and downs, it really pulls you close together.”
His words offer promise for the Nebraska defense, though not necessarily in the short term.
This is still the group that was gouged for 465 yards, including 227 on the ground, last time out on Sept. 21 by FCS-level SDSU in a 59-20 Husker victory.
Defensive end Randy Gregory, a bright spot amid the lows for the Nebraska defense, said he expects to see a different unit on the field against Illinois than the group that couldn’t stop South Dakota State in the first quarter two weeks ago.
“I hope it’s changed a lot,” Gregory said. “There’s a lot of things we need to focus on and fix. I expect that we’ll have done that.”
For Scheelhaase, moving past Illinois’ offensive failures involved a clean wipe of the slate. The Illini scored more than 20 points just once in Big Ten play last year -- and that came in a 30-point loss to Ohio State.
“Everybody’s put the past in the past,” he said. “It’s behind us. The vibe this year is that we can do a lot more than what people expected us to do. We don’t have to worry about what’s happening on the outside, what people are thinking about us.
“We just have to worry about having great days at practice and playing with confidence on Saturday.”
To avoid a 15th consecutive Big Ten loss, Illinois must beat a team that Scheelhaase has long admired. He was initially offered a scholarship by former Nebraska coach Bill Callahan in 2007. Scheelhaase visited Memorial Stadium for the USC game that year and again for Pelini’s first spring game seven months later.
“It was an honor to get a chance to be recruited by them,” Scheelhaase said.
He said he’s looked forward to Saturday since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011.
“I knew what an exciting experience this would be, not only for me but for my teammates,” he said. “I’ve been telling the guys all week to take in the moment -- take in what’s it all about that.”
Spoken like a man of experience.
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