CHAMPAIGN — Imagine a college football program that has its fans in an uproar over slipping performance, fires its athletics director in the middle of the season and whose head coach is already viewed as “dead man walking.”
Not long ago that description fit the University of Illinois to a T. But as they arrive at Memorial Stadium for Friday night's Big Ten Conference game against Illinois (7 p.m., FS1), it’s the Nebraska Cornhuskers who carry the burden of uncertainty.
Slipping to 1-2 on Sept. 16 after being upended in a home game against Northern Illinois, chaos ensued. Five days later, AD Shawn Eichorst was fired. Mike Riley, hired by Eichorst, saw his Nebraska record slip to 16-13, not nearly good enough to satisfy proud Nebraska fans who still remember winning three national championships in the 1990s.
Things have settled down in the days since. Nebraska (2-2, 1-0) managed to fight past Rutgers 27-17 and former Nebraska football All-American Dave Rimington was named interim AD.
Now the affable Riley brings Nebraska to Champaign hoping to keep building positive momentum with games against No. 10 Wisconsin and No. 11 Ohio State looming next.
Nebraska has been mistake-prone on offense with quarterback Tanner Lee having thrown nine interceptions, including three pick-sixes, to offset his seven touchdown passes.
But there appears to be the makings of a solid running game and if the Huskers can establish the run against a young Illini defense, maybe Lee won’t have to throw some of the high-risk passes that have landed him in trouble.
“For us it’s about getting the offense off the field,” Illinois defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said. “And we still want to score on defense and take the ball away three-plus times. But where we’ve had trouble is when we struggle on third down.”
With top wideout Stanley Morgan limited by a neck injury (he is expected to play Friday), Nebraska has discovered another dangerous weapon in redshirt freshman slot receiver JD Spielman.
The 5-foot-9 speedster is making plays on offense and on special teams, having returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in the season opener and another kick 50 yards against Oregon.
“The thing I love about JD is that he is unfazed about where he is,” Riley said. “He’s very competitive and very comfortable getting in these games and he makes plays. I’m excited about how he can continue to impact these games on offense and special teams.”
After some struggles early, it appears the strength of the Nebraska team is its defense under first-year coordinator Bob Diaco, a one-time Iowa player who was most recently running the defense at Connecticut.
“He runs a very different style of defense that is different than what we see in the Big Ten,” Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. “We’re going to have to be on top of our game.”
Illini head coach Lovie Smith said he’s likely to stick with Chayce Crouch as the starting quarterback in Illinois' Big Ten opener, even though Crouch was replaced by Jeff George Jr. in the third quarter as Illinois (2-1) lost at South Florida on Sept. 15.
Crouch could benefit from a beefed up offensive line and the season’s first appearance of running back Reggie Corbin, who has been slow returning from an injury. Center Doug Kramer returns and true freshman tackle/guard Vederian Lowe is expected to see his first action of the season.
But while Illinois started 10 true freshmen against South Florida, Nebraska lists no true freshmen in its starting lineup. Smith said he’s not concerned about his team’s lack of experience.
“I think what we’ve learned is that we can be a pretty good football team,” Smith said. “The first game we had to come back to win it. We had to finish it. The second game we got off to a faster start and won.
“Now we need to see about coming back, how we come back from a big loss when we didn’t play our best football. We can play a lot better than that. Our guys are growing up. That’s what we’ve learned.”