The Illinois Fighting Illini have exceeded expectations after firing their coach less than a week before the season and they now have a chance to cover at home vs. Nebraska.
After some controversy led to the abrupt firing of the head coach of the home team less than one week before the start of the season, look for the squad to continue its surprising start Saturday when the Nebraska Cornhuskers (2-2, 2-2 ATS) pay a visit to those upstart Illinois Fighting Illini (3-1, 2-2 ATS) at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, IL at 3:30 ET in a game televised nationally on Big Ten Network.
The point spread at Pinnacle Sports has Illinois as a decent home underdog for this contest with the current line at +6½ with odds of -106.
Dismissed over Player Treatment
Former Illinois Coach Tim Beckman was fired on August 28th due to, as athletic director Mike Thomas put it, “[Beckman's] part to deter injury reporting and influence medical decisions that pressured players to avoid or postpone medical treatment and continue playing despite injuries."
Beckman was replaced by former offensive coordinator Bill Cubit on an interim basis, and to the surprise of many, the Fighting Illini have played some inspired football while beginning the season with a 52-3 destruction of Kent State and going on to their current 3-1 start. Most recently the Illini defeated Middle Tennessee State last week in a back-and-forth affair 27-25 on a game-winning field goal with about two minutes left.
The Cornhuskers meanwhile have already been losing college football picks twice in non-conference action, which is very atypical of a Nebraska program that is accustomed to opening up Big Ten play undefeated. Instead, the Huskers have narrow losses to BYU and Miami-Florida to go along with a rout of South Alabama and a closer than expected 36-28 victory over Southern Miss last week.
Mostly Close Games for Nebraska
Outside of the 48-9 romp over outclassed South Alabama, the other three Nebraska games have all been close this season, which in itself makes taking the points with Illinois here look attractive. First came the Hail Mary 33-28 loss at home in Lincoln on the game’s final play to BYU on opening weekend, then after the big win over USA the Cornhuskers lost 36-33 in overtime at Miami before beating Southern Miss by eight points as 20½-point chalk last week.
The biggest issue for Nebraska has been pass defense, with the Cornhuskers incredibly ranking dead last among the 128 FBS teams in the country in that category, surrendering a pathetic 379.5 passing yards per game on 8.7 yards per attempt!
It does not help that the Huskers could be missing four members of the front seven either, with defensive end Jack Gangwish and linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey both definitely out and defensive tackle Vincent Valentine and linebacker Josh Banderas both questionable.
Lunt Can Take Advantage
Meanwhile the Illini can take advantage of that Nebraska secondary with quarterback Wes Lunt, who has played well in all three of the Illinois wins while hiccupping in the 48-18 blowout loss at North Carolina. Most recently, Lunt passed for 238 yards in the nail-biting win over MTSU.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the 3-1 Illinois start though is a defense that ranks 24th in the country in total defense allowing just 306.2 total yards per game, with the biggest strength being a run defense ranked 27th allowing 112.2 rushing yards per game on just 3.1 yards per carry. That run defense is vital here vs. a Nebraska offense averaging 194.8 rushing yards per game, as the passing success of quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr. is usually due to a solid running game.
Most Penalized Team in the Country
Finally, Nebraska leads the entire country in penalties this season with 43 already in four games, averaging nearly 11 accepted penalties per game. This figures to be a difficult enough game for the Cornhuskers visiting Illinois for the first time since 1986 and for the first time ever as a fellow Big Ten member even with a clean game, so if those penalties continue, Nebraska can be in real danger of losing this game outright.
Win or lose however, we are expecting another inspired effort from Illinois in the conference opener at home vs. a marquee opponent in Nebraska, so look for the Illini to at the very least stay inside this nearly touchdown spread from Champaign on Saturday.
College Football Pick: Illinois +6½ (-106)