For the most part, football coaches cherish what can happen during the non-conference portion of their schedule.
Confidence can be created.
Identities can be built.
Talent can be discovered, and problems can be solved.
For a team like Illinois, a 3-1 non-conference start lifted spirits and raised hopes. It was a cool breeze for a head coach sitting on the hot seat.
But there’s a downside, too.
Because most non-conference opponents field rosters that won’t have the depth of skill, size and overall talent that awaits once league play begins, it can build a sense of security that isn’t anchored in reality.
Saturday was reality day for the Illini.
Facing a bigger, stronger, more experienced and skilled Nebraska team playing in front of its 330th consecutive home sellout, Illinois sputtered on offense and got pushed around on defense, losing 39-19 in Lincoln, Neb.
Nebraska could have kept this very simple. It could have handed the ball to tailback Ameer Abdullah on every single play.
Deception and variety were unnecessary against an Illini defense that seemed content to admire Abdullah rather than actually drag him to the ground. Every team misses tackles, but Illinois did it repeatedly throughout the game, often grabbing air as Abdullah carried 20 times for 225 yards and two touchdowns.
If Illinois fielded a defensive roster actually populated with Big Ten-caliber players, it could have stymied Abdullah and made Nebraska throw the ball on a day when the wind was a serious factor. It should have sealed off the run and made Nebraska throw with a pair of very ordinary backup quarterbacks who were filling in for injured Taylor Martinez.
But because Illinois has a huge talent deficit on defense and could not carry out Plan A, it couldn’t make Nebraska resort to Plan B.
It wasn’t all the fault of the defense.
For the first time this season, Illinois’ offense had no big-play bite.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase looked unsettled from the start. Initially, it could have been the result of throwing into a 30 mph wind. But even when the breeze was at his back, he seemed to wilt against the Ne-braska blitz — throwing while shuffling in reverse, throwing off his back foot, throwing without confidence.
For the first time this season, the Illini offense was no fun to watch.
The exception was the inspired play of Josh Ferguson, who remains the team’s most dynamic weapon.
Ferguson carried 19 times for 114 yards, and had eight catches for another 82.
“The biggest thing you see Josh doing is catching the ball and making plays for us,” coach Tim Beckman said. “He ran the power well today, too. He had a very good game for us today.”
At times, Nebraska blanketed receivers deep. But other times Scheelhaase simply didn’t find them. It was a step back for a quarterback who performed remarkably well in non-conference play.
But those mostly cushy non-conference foes are a thing of the past. Illinois has its second bye week, then returns to action Oct. 19 at home against Wisconsin.
Warning: The Badgers run the ball even better than Nebraska.
The reality is that Illinois has a chance to fix some of its problems on offense. From a talent standpoint, they’re better equipped on that side of the ball.
Defense, however, is another matter. Illinois would like to win another game or two before the season ends. The inability to slow down a Nebraska team operating with two backup quarterbacks makes one wonder if that can happen.