Nebraska and Illinois together open Big Ten play Saturday at noon ET on ESPNU. The Fighting Illini have lost 14 consecutive Big Ten games. The Cornhuskers have won eight of their past nine regular-season league games. But there’s an argument to make that Illinois is headed in a better direction than Bo Pelini’s team, which has been erratic through four games this season.
Here’s what we’ll be watching at Memorial Stadium:
Quarterback rotation: Offensive coordinator Tim Beck split time between freshman Tommy Armstrong and senior Ron Kellogg III in Nebraska’s Sept. 21 win over South Dakota State. The two-QB system worked well, as the Huskers rolled to more than 300 yards passing and rushing. With Taylor Martinez set to miss another game because of turf toe, Amstrong and Kellogg get another chance. Can the rotation function so smoothly again, and will the Huskers go with the hot hand if the game stays close past the end of the first quarter?
Bye week results: We heard lots of talk this week from a maligned group of Blackshirts that the defense made strides over the past two weeks. Really, there’s nowhere to go but up after Nebraska ranked 107th nationally in yards allowed per game through the nonconference portion of its season. The Huskers have struggled against both the run and the pass, a bad combination. The time off might have allowed Nebraska to gather its senses on defense, though, and begin the long journey back to solid play.
Mental mistakes: More than the yards or the points allowed in September by his defense, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini was upset two weeks ago by the Huskers’ inability to execute the simple things. They had problems lining up correctly. They didn’t communicate well. They failed to tackle in space. Even on offense, the normally sure-handed receiving corps struggled at times. You can bet Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit will look to test the Huskers early. If Nebraska stumbles, look for a long day.
Will the leader stand up?: Despite all the inconsistency it displayed through four games, Nebraska looks just as likely as any of its other Legends Division brethren to make the trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game two months from now. Michigan has been a mess since it beat Notre Dame. Michigan State’s offense hasn’t shown up. Who knows what to make of Iowa, which exposed Minnesota? And check back on Northwestern after Saturday’s meeting with Ohio State.
Fan support: Nebraska will sell out Memorial Stadium for the 330th consecutive game on Saturday, an NCAA-record streak that began in 1962. Huskers fans are loyal and, as we saw in Septbember, forgiving toward a coach who cussed them up and down in a two-year audio recording that went public. But that loyalty and understanding won’t last forever if Nebraska fails to fix some of its defensive issues. A chunk of the student-seating section sat empty two weeks ago. It will be interesting to see if Saturday is different.