May 25, 2024

Bret Bielema looking to maintain his dominance over Huskers

Illinois Fighting Illini Football

Illinois Coach Bret Bielema and an official have a discussion on the sidelines during a timeout in the second quarter against Penn State Saturday September 16, 2023 at Memorial Stadium. (Lynn Harrington/stayaliveinpower5)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois has a pivotal battle with Nebraska under the Friday night lights, and the loser will likely be out of the race for the Big Ten West.

Coach Bret Bielema came within a game of clinching the division last season, and remains as hungry as ever. The Big Ten West is full of parity, but the Fighting Illini and the Huskers are winless in conference play. Illinois has lost three of its’ last four games, so Bielema understands the urgency, and the fact that his team has a slim margin for error.

There’s no denying Bielema has had Nebraska’s number though. After all, he’s 4-1 against the Huskers as a head coach. Not to mention Bielema has won his last three games against Nebraska, including one for a Big Ten Championship. However, Illinois’ offense has been in rebuild mode, and the defense hasn’t looked as good as advertised.

That’s why Bielema is a bit concerned about this Husker team under first-year coach Matt Rhule. He has Nebraska playing physical on both sides of the ball, and there’s some uncertainty with Bielema scouting Nebraska.

“You know Nebraska is kind of a little bit different in every game,” Bielema said. “Started off that first game against Minnesota, obviously played at Colorado, and then they kind of had some transition at the quarterback position as well the last couple of weeks.”

Rhule has played musical chairs with his quarterbacks, and was forced to rotate the backfield after season-ending injuries to two productive running backs. Still, Bielema wants his defense to expect the unexpected. He knows Rhule has a track history of running the ball, and controlling the pace of the game. Rhule is also creative with how he gets his ground production, which doesn’t surprise Bielema.

“Their offense identity is they’re going to run the ball,” he said. “They do it in a variety of ways, with the running backs, quarterbacks and wide receivers.”

Signal-caller Jeff Sims started the first two games for the Huskers. Heinrich Haarberg was behind center for the last three contests though, and his performances been promising. It’s no mystery that Nebraska (2-3) has been plagued by turnovers on offense, and that’s an area where Bielema wants his defensive line to exploit.

Illinois (2-3) has been leaky on defense all season, after losing three defenders to the NFL Draft, including a first-rounder. Rhule will try to establish the line of scrimmage early on, and the Huskers have yet to put together a complete game. With the spotlight on Memorial Stadium, Bielema wants to get his team back even in the win-loss column.

He knows this game is going to come down to which teams wants it the most. Bielema is going to need the veterans to rise to the occasion. No player on the roster has lost to Nebraska as an Illinois student-athlete, and Bielema intends to keep it that way. The Huskers’ offense continues to intrigue Bielema, and Rhule has his full attention.

“I think they’ve been a moving target through five games, and we’ll see where we defend them on Friday.”