CHAMPAIGN — AJ Bush Jr. knows the environment all too well.
Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., is loud — raucous, really. Nebraska fans cheer opposing teams as they enter and leave the field, a relative rarity and something Bush was on the other side of in 2014 and 2015 when he was a quarterback on the Huskers' roster.
Bush committed to Nebraska out of Norcross High School in Georgia. He took a redshirt in 2014 and did not play in a game in 2015 before transferring to Iowa Western Community College, then to Virginia Tech before landing in Champaign.
“It’s going to be special," Bush said. "At the end of the day, I can’t put a lot of emphasis on it. I have to play for Illinois. It’s not about me. It’s not a one-man show. It’s cool coming off a big game going into that environment. It’s just setting up something big."
When then Illini (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten) take the field at 11 a.m. Saturday, it will be Bush's first game against the Cornhuskers and it happens that he's arriving in Lincoln after his best game in an Illini jersey. He passed for 216 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 135 yards and two scores in a 55-31 in over Minnesota.
“It’s a special time when you get a chance to go back to the place you considered home, where you had history," Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said. "There’s a little bit of added incentive, I’m sure. AJ is coming off an excellent football game."
After losing the first six games of the season, Nebraska (2-7, 1-5) has won two of three, scoring at least 31 points in each.
“They're a team that’s been playing very good football as of late," Smith said. "They played an outstanding game against Ohio State. Whenever you go on the road that’s tough duty, especially in an environment like that. We’re ready for it."
Bush was assisted in Illinois' big-play assault on Minnesota by running back Reggie Corbin, who has 952 rushing yards and has produced explosive plays on a nearly week-by-week basis. Two weeks ago the team rallied behind Corbin in his return to his home state of Maryland. The Illini hope to do the for Bush in his return to Nebraska.
“He’s our quarterback," Corbin said. "We protect him at all times, regardless of who it is. Now it’s a little bit more. A little bit more effort. We shouldn’t have more effort to give, but a little bit more. You’ve got to protect him, regardless of who we’re playing against.
“Don’t let anyone get even close to him. Don’t let anyone even think about hitting him."
Bush's counterpart is Nebraska freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez, who threw for 266 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 107 yards and two scores in a 36-31 loss last week to No. 8 Ohio State.
Martinez has thrown for 1,922 yards and 12 touchdowns while tallying up 480 yards and six scores on the ground.
“They’ve had a lot of great quarterbacks, (Nebraska head coach) Scott Frost being one, who came through there," Smith said. "Martinez is another one. He’s a freshman, but he can throw the ball, he’s athletic and he can beat you with his feet.
“It will be a big challenge for our defense this week. I can’t wait to get a chance to compete that way."
The Martinez-led offense ranks third in the Big Ten in total yards (468.9) behind only Ohio State and Purdue. Illinois' defense, though, was much-improved in last week's win over Minnesota with Smith taking over as defensive coordinator after the resignation of Hardy Nickerson from the position. The Illini snapped an ugly three-game losing streak where the defense was picked apart by Purdue, Wisconsin and Maryland.
Frost hopes the experience his defense has going against Martinez translates to success against Bush and the Illini, who rank seventh in the Big Ten with 416 yards per game, and second in rushing with 249.4 yards per game.
The Huskers rank 13th in the Big Ten in total defense, allowing 442.8 yards per game — just ahead of the Illini, who sit in last with 524.8 yards per game
"Some of their schemes are similar to what we do on offense," Frost said. "Obviously their guy can run — he was here so you guys know him as well as I do — but they played a great game offensively last week ... put up a bunch of yards, a bunch of big plays.
"Sometimes it takes awhile to find yourself and they have seemed to settle on what they're going to do, and they looked really good at it last week. So hopefully a little bit of the experience against our offense helps our defense, but they’re going to pose some challenges for our defense."