Huskers, Illini looking for sharper QB play when they meet
All eyes will be on the quarterbacks when Nebraska and Illinois meet on Friday night in Champaign, Illinois. It might not be pretty.
The Cornhuskers (2-2, 1-0 Big Ten) and Illini (2-1, 0-0) have been hamstrung by shoddy quarterback play so far. Nebraska coach Mike Riley continues to voice strong support for Tanner Lee as his starter. Illinois coach Lovie Smith said he’s sticking with Chayce Crouch, though Jeff George Jr. did play all but one series of the second half in the Illini’s last game.
Lee’s 52.1-percent completion rate ranks 12th in the Big Ten, and his nine interceptions are most in the nation. Three of his five interceptions in the last two games were returned for touchdowns.
There’s plenty of blame to spread around. He’s been under pressure, having taken six sacks and getting hurried 14 times. He’s had bad luck on at least two of the picks, with one glancing off the receiver’s helmet and into the defender’s hands and another one coming when a cornerback jumped the route on a screen. He’s made bad decisions.
“Don’t make a bad play worse,” Riley said. “I think that when a guy wants to make a play, and frankly when we are not doing as well as we want to, then you tend to force things. A quarterback has to understand that someone is going to get beat sometimes in pass protection, sometimes the receiver is going to get covered and it’s not there, and now all of the sudden something is coming and things are starting to break down. It’s not going to be a great play, don’t make it worse.”
Crouch is the lowest-rated passer in the Big Ten, and his 51.6-percent completion is 13th. George entered the Sept. 15 loss at South Florida on the second series of the third quarter and completed 12 of 22 passes for 211 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions.
Smith said George would continue to be the Illini’s “relief hitter.”
“It was a tough situation, he came in and took the snaps and threw some balls and had a little bit of success while he was out there,” Smith said. “So that’s where he is. You bring a relief hitter in there when you need something a little bit different than what you’ve been getting.”
Things to know as Nebraska returns to Champaign for the first time since blowing a 13-0 lead late in the third quarter and losing 14-13 in 2015:
LONG BREAK, SHORT TURNAROUND
Smith said he was glad to have an open date last week so his team could get healthy and do a self-evaluation. The Illini have lost 14 of their last 16 following an open week. Since 1985, they are 13-25 after a bye.
Nebraska had a short turnaround after its 27-17 win over Rutgers last Saturday. The Huskers have won five of eight games played on six days’ rest.
WHO’S IN, WHO’S OUT
Nebraska RB Tre Bryant (knee), S Josh Kalu (hamstring) and LB Marcus Newby (hamstring) are out. OL David Knevel (ankle) and WR Bryant Reimers (hamstring) are questionable. OL Matt Farniok has a padded club over the cast on his broken wrist and should be able to play.
For the Illini, RB Reggie Corbin (shoulder) will make his season debut. So will DE James Crawford, who was suspended the first three games. C Doug Kramer (knee) is back after missing the last two games. DL Tito Odenigbo, a key backup, has been suspended indefinitely.
YOUTH IS SERVING
Illinois has started 10 true freshmen, most in the nation. The most to start prior to this season were nine in 1980. A total of 18 true freshmen have played for Illinois, tied for second most behind LSU’s 20. Nebraska has played four true freshmen, with offensive tackle Brenden Jaimes the only one to have started.
Nebraska allowed 194 yards of total offense against Rutgers last week, the fewest by an opponent in 47 games. Illinois’ offense ranks last in the Big Ten with 290 yards and 22.3 points per game.
HANGING ON TO THE BALL
Nebraska and Illinois have had problems with interceptions, but they are among 16 teams in the nation and three in the Big Ten that have not lost a fumble. The Huskers and Illini each have put the ball on the ground five times.
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