Northern Illinois vs. Nebraska, 9.14

Nebraska's Austin Allen (11) recovers a Northern Illinois punt blocked by Isaiah Stalbird in the first quarter last Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

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Nebraska will open Big Ten play with a trip to Champaign to take on Illinois on Saturday night. Let's take a closer look at how the Huskers and Illini compare. 

How the Huskers light up the scoreboard 

1. Finish off drives. Nebraska put 30 first-half points on the board last week despite having three drives stall inside the red zone. As competition gets better, those have to finish in the end zone.

2. A little help from their friends. On the other hand, two of those red-zone drives ended in blocked kicks. The kicking operation is certainly part of the scoreboard, and NU has missed too many opportunities for points. It’s got to get better.

3. Stock up. The offense has improved each of the first three weeks. The latest: a 525-yard, one-turnover outing. A continued upward trend — from offensive line play to quarterback play and in between — will make for a dangerous operation.

4. Ground delivery. Nebraska’s running game took a big step forward last week. Dedrick Mills looked confident. The offensive line got more movement. A year ago, NU rushed for 316 against Illinois.

How the Blackshirts shut ’em down 

1. Bottle it up. Illinois' running game hasn’t hit full speed yet, but Reggie Corbin had his best outing last weekend. If Nebraska can keep the talented junior mostly in the starting gates this weekend, it’s going to be in good shape.

2. Peters pickers. Illinois QB Brandon Peters has nine touchdown passes and two interceptions through three games. Nebraska, on the other hand, leads the conference with nine forced turnovers. Can the Blackshirts force the junior Michigan transfer into mistakes?

3. Get off the field. NU is allowing opponent first downs on only 33.3% of chances so far this year. Last year’s number: 43%. Big Ten play won’t make that any easier, but it’s a nice improvement so far.

4. Stay off the field. This one’s not so much on the Blackshirts themselves. Coach Scott Frost admitted this week the defense has been on the field more than he’d like. The offense can help with that.

Three numbers to know

4.74: Yards per play allowed by both Nebraska and Illinois, which are tied for No. 41 nationally.

22: The longest rush play allowed by Nebraska through three weeks, to NIU’s Jordan Nettles last week.

238: Number of plays the Blackshirts have defended through three games (79.3 per game), more than all but four Division I teams out of 130.

Under the radar

Austin Allen

TE | No. 11 | So.: Allen was pegged by many — present company included — as a potential breakout player, but he’s got just one catch for 8 yards through three games. Last week, though, the Aurora native recovered a fumble on a botched punt, stopped a fake-punt attempt, nearly scored a touchdown on a blocked punt and alertly pounced on a Jack Stoll fumble to keep a touchdown drive alive. One of these days, the 6-foot-8, 245-pounder is going to have a breakout offensive game.

Deontre Thomas

DL | No. 97 | So.: Thomas jumped off the film last week when he ran to the sideline and tackled a ball carrier out on the perimeter. The sophomore doesn’t carry the same size as most of his line mates up front, but he’s athletic, explosive and is making more and more plays. Playing a little less than half the time, he’s got eight tackles so far this fall, fourth among defensive linemen.

Marquee matchup 

NU's run defense against Illinois junior Reggie Corbin

Nebraska hasn’t allowed more than 89 rushing yards overall in any of its first three games, while Corbin rushed 18 times for 144 last week against Eastern Michigan and enters play averaging 7.5 per carry for the year. Corbin was off to a great start against the Huskers last year — 59 rushing yards and 34 receiving in less than two quarters — before he was injured. Can Nebraska do a better job of containing the standout this time around?

Biggest mismatch 

NU quarterback Adrian Martinez compared to Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters

Yeah, yeah, this isn’t really a matchup in the game. Quarterbacks don’t play against each other. But it’s a game in which the Huskers should have a decided advantage at the position. Martinez turned the ball over four times in the first two games, but turned in a clean outing last week against NIU and has back-to-back 300-plus total-yard outings. He’s averaging 9.7 yards per attempt compared to 7.2 for Peters. Martinez hasn’t broken out in the run game yet (116 yards and three scores), but that’s an element Peters (18 rushing yards) doesn’t really possess.

Prediction

Nebraska 41, Illinois 24

Nebraska hasn’t won on the road since Frost was hired, but the line on this one has nearly doubled since the Huskers opened as a 7½-point favorite. So, what do we make of NU’s Big Ten opener? The Husker offense has gotten better each time out. Illinois presents the best running attack Erik Chinander’s defense has seen so far, but star junior Corbin has also been somewhat limited through three games. The bet here is that Nebraska doesn’t match the 606 yards and 54 points it poured on the Illini last year in Lincoln, but that Frost and company generate more than enough to record win No. 1 away from home.

Contact the writer at pgabriel@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.

This article originally ran on journalstar.com.

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