Nebraska is preparing for a bit of a coronavirus-related curveball this weekend against Illinois.
It’s not — at least, at this point — about whether the game will happen, but more about who will play for the Illini.
Illinois lost quarterback Brandon Peters to the conference’s 21-day COVID-19 protocol after its season-opener against Wisconsin late last month and has played its last three games without him.
Now he should be eligible to get back into the fold against Nebraska, but a promising redshirt freshman turned in an eye-opening performance in a 23-20 win over Rutgers on Saturday.
That’s Isaiah “Juice” Williams, the heralded recruit from St. Louis, who rushed 31 times for 192 yards in the victory in addition to modest passing numbers (7-of-18 for 102 yards). So, who will it be?
Illinois coach Lovie Smith isn’t saying.
“What I see is that our starting quarterback has been out and he’s available this week,” Smith said Monday. “That’s a good option. What I also saw is what our other quarterback was able to do this week. Of course, I’m not going to say what our game plan would be, but I would say we have some good options going into this week.”
That makes for a bit of a mystery on Nebraska’s end, considering the Illini will likely operate differently depending on which guy plays or plays the most.
“The challenge for us is not really knowing who's going to play and who's going to be out there for them and, maybe, what they're going to do on offense depending on who's playing quarterback,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said Monday. “So we're going to have to get ready for multiple things.”
Peters started last year against Nebraska and completed 9 of 22 passes for 78 yards, a touchdown and an interception, and also ran four times for 16 yards and a score. He’s not the threat on the ground that Williams is, though.
“It’s not like a whole-grade switch in their offense,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. “Obviously there’s different tweaks when (Williams) is in the football game and when Peters is in the football game there’s different tweaks involved. So we’ve just got to tweak our scheme a little bit. But as I’ve told you guys before, we see a running quarterback quite a bit, we see (NU quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey) quite a bit and Logan Smothers, so we’ve got some experience defending the quarterback run.”
Nebraska’s front seven has been flexible through three games in both personnel and alignment, but no matter how Chinander and company decide to defend the Illini, they will likely continue to rely on a large number of players up front. Only senior defensive lineman Ben Stille and senior outside linebacker JoJo Domann have been full-time players so far for the Blackshirts.
Domann, in particular, has used his versatility well and allows Chinander to mix and match around him.
“He’s playing really good football right now and he’s doing his job,” Chinander said. “He hasn’t been going rogue or anything like that. He’s playing within the defense. He’s making the plays when his number is called. When you’re a really good football player, that’s what you do. You help other people and your teammates make plays when their number is called, and when your number is called, you make one.
“But I don’t think any of us have seen the ceiling on JoJo Domann yet.”
Domann is tied for second on the team in tackles with 23 and has a team-best three tackles for loss through three games. He was on the field for every one of NU’s 91 defensive snaps against Penn State.
“I don't think I saw him slow down one time,” senior inside linebacker Collin Miller said. "Playing 90 (snaps) looked like playing 14 for him.”
Domann might be the most versatile player on what looks so far like a versatile defense. And he’s part of the reason Chinander expressed confidence in his group’s ability to react to whatever Illinois rolls out on Saturday.
“Our guys know that things are going to change a little bit depending on who’s in the football game, and they’ve got to be ready for anything. It’s not like when Williams is in there, he’s just not going to throw the football. And Peters can pull it and make you pay, now, too. You’ve got to be ready for the whole package and just understand the tweaks for when each guy is in the football game.”