NU football practice, 9.27.2016

Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh gives instruction for a drill during practice at Memorial Stadium on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016.

Nebraska's offensive coaches have reached a clear consensus on at least one matter.

Watch out for Illinois' defensive line.

"It's the best group I think we've seen so far," said Husker offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh, echoing an assessment of head coach Mike Riley earlier in the week.

Cavanaugh said the Illini have big defensive linemen, a la Northwestern.

"But they're definitely more athletic," he said. "Northwestern's tackles were pretty good-sized guys. But I don't know if they have the get-off that these guys have."

Nebraska comes off a 24-13 win against the Wildcats last week in Evanston, Illinois.

Although Illinois has stumbled to a 1-2 record entering Saturday's game at Memorial Stadium, first-year head coach Lovie Smith's crew is tied for the lead nationally in sacks per game at 4.3.

What's more, the Illini rank third nationally in tackles for loss per game (10.7).

Illinois senior defensive end Carroll Phillips has been particularly disruptive, leading the nation in tackles for loss per game (3.0) and ranking fifth in sacks (1.3). Versatile lineman Gimel President is third in the Big Ten in tackles for loss per game (1.7).

Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf mentioned Illinois defensive end Dawuane Smoot as another "speed-rush" threat to complement Phillips.

"Our biggest challenge will be blocking the defensive line," Langsdorf said.

Nebraska coaches are well aware that Smith built his coaching reputation on the defensive side of the ball.

"I'm sure he has his fingerprints all over their defense," Langsdorf said. "You see that in some of the things they do. But I think he's really got some defensive ends who are scary. When you have that, you don't have to run a lot of (blitzes) to get pressure on the quarterback. You can do some more things in the back end."

Cavanaugh has a simple message for his linemen this week.

"You got to be tough," he said. "You've got to be ready to go."

A lot of love: When former Nebraska offensive line coach Milt Tenopir died Monday night after a long battle with leukemia, the loss hit Cavanaugh hard.

"The guy had a lot of love in his heart," Cavanaugh said. "Just can't say enough about him. It's just sad. I'm going to miss him."

When Cavanaugh recently visited Tenopir in the hospital, the two talked about how much Tenopir loved the current linemen.

"Even though he had never coached them, he loves Nebraska football and he loves the offensive line, so it was pretty special," Cavanaugh said.

Conrad on alert: If Nebraska were to suffer another injury to a starting offensive lineman — any of the five — Cole Conrad would be the "next guy up," according to Cavanaugh.

"He's played center, guard and tackle," the coach said of the Fremont native.

Starting right guard Tanner Farmer is expected to miss Saturday's game with a high-ankle sprain suffered against Northwestern. Jerald Foster, who was the starting left guard, tore a knee ligament in August and is out for the season.

Senior Corey Whitaker will start in place of Farmer.

"You have to have guys ready to play," Langsdorf said. "I think Corey and (left guard) Sam Hahn have filled in nicely. As they've gotten in the game, we haven't really missed a beat."

Cavanaugh said Nebraska prefers to maintain redshirt seasons for the true freshman linemen.

Early success: Nebraska's offense broke out of the gate with a flourish against Northwestern.

Tommy Armstrong gunned an 8-yard completion to Stanley Morgan on the first play from scrimmage. Armstrong then ran for a 17-yard gain before running back Terrell Newby broke free for a 49-yard run, fumbling as he stretched for the end zone, resulting in a touchback.

The offensive line fired off the ball on the initial drive.

"After that drive, we kind of slowed down a little bit — had some problems being consistent," Langsdorf said. "I thought we were better in the second half."

New staff, new video: Langsdorf says he hasn't watched any video of last year's 14-13 loss at Illinois.

"It's a new staff and new defense, so I haven't spent much time on it," he said. "We really try to base our attack on what we're seeing from a new staff."

First-time problem: Diving for the end zone. About to score. Then the ball slips out a foot shy of the goal line.

Newby said he had never had a play like that happen to him before.

"Never had a touchback called on me," he said. "It's terrible. I'm going to make sure it never happens again. It was just a bad decision by me. Got to keep two hands on it. Better ball security."

The senior running back did still end up with his best statistical game of the season, finishing with 69 yards on 10 carries and a touchdown, as well as two catches for 14 yards.

— Steven M. Sipple and Brian Christopherson


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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