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Pick - Analysis
Even though they haven't started conference play yet, Illinois may be one of the most surprising teams out of the Big Ten so far. A year removed from a two-win season, the Illini already have three victories to their name. Now the real test is here as they have to travel to Nebraska in their conference opener. It's not quite the best matchup, but also not a game completely out of reach.
The Cornhuskers come in as -9.5 point favorites at betonline, down from -10. However, they haven't started the season all that well and may be without starting QB Taylor Martinez in this game. He missed Nebraska's last game due to a turf toe injury and is questionable for this contest. It also helps that Nebraska is coming off a bye week.
Nevertheless, Tommy Armstrong Jr. looked fine in his first start, granted it was against South Dakota State, but the Cornhuskers were still able to score 59 points. It helps to have a top running game already in place led by Ameer Abdullah with 465 yards and three TDs. The Illini struggled defensively as seen in their loss against Washington when they allowed 208 yards to Bishop Sankey.
If Martinez can't go, the Cornhuskers will likely continue to pound the running game as usual, which opens up some longer passes down field. On the other end of the ball, Nebraska still lacks a lot. They gave up 34 points in the opener to Wyoming and then 38 unanswered points against UCLA in their only loss of the season.
Illinois doesn't have the same kind of offense as UCLA, but they have been pretty impressive this year. Putting up 45 points on Cincinnati and even 24 against Washington are no simple feats. All Nathan Scheelhaase needed was a different offense and all of a sudden he's a top quarterback in the conference. He's on pace to easily surpass his career-best numbers, already with 12 touchdowns and completing 67 percent of his passes. Although he didn't look that good against Washington, completing 9-of-25 for 156 yards, Nebraska isn't a defensive powerhouse that will completely contain Scheelhaase. He spreads the ball around a ton which helps, and the running game has been the Illini's only problem. Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson lead the way, but their numbers still aren't great even though Illinois is scoring more than 40 points per game.
The opportunity is here for Illinois to break up the Big Ten and let other teams know they aren't a free win on the schedule. They've done it out of conference and now it's time to surprise in conference.
The Fighting Illini have not covered in six straight road games and are 1-8 ATS in their last nine conference games, but remember this team is nothing like the one of past years. The Cornhuskers are 18-4-2 ATS in their last 24 home games vs. a team with a winning road record and 8-3-1 ATS in their last 12 home games overall. Even if Martinez plays for Nebraska, this game is not a gimme as long as Illinois continues to play like they have been.
This one is a Key Release. So, no prediction here.
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