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Five burning questions heading into Illinois week

Here are five of the biggest questions still facing Nebraska as it gets ready to play host to Illinois this week…

Quarterback Luke McCaffrey helped guide Nebraska to its first win of the season in his first-career start. Can he and the Huskers keep it rolling this week vs. Illinois? (Nebraska Media Relations)

1. Can Nebraska keep the momentum going?

For the first time in nearly a full calendar year, Nebraska is going into a game week as a winner.

Head coach Scott Frost didn’t downplay the meaning of Saturday’s victory over Penn State, which was NU’s first win since beating Maryland on the road last season on Nov. 23, 2019.

The Huskers finally caught some breaks and got some bounces to go their way. Regardless of how many issues still need to be addressed going forward, the momentum of a win is the perfect medicine for a program trying to build a semblance of confidence.

Now Nebraska has a very winnable home matchup against Illinois this week with an opportunity to win back-to-back games for the first time since beating Northern Illinois and the Illini last year (Sept. 14/21).

If NU can pull out another victory on Saturday, it could change the entire perception of the remaining four games on the schedule. Of the Huskers’ next five opponents, only Purdue (2-1) currently owns a winning record.

2. Will Luke McCaffrey take a step forward as a passer?

There was officially a changing of the guard at quarterback for Nebraska on Saturday, as redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey took the reins from junior Adrian Martinez as the new starter.

In helping guide the Huskers to their first win of the season, McCaffrey showed plenty of flashes of what he could bring to the offense from now on. He also made some mistakes that must be corrected.

McCaffrey finished the game with 219 total yards, including 152 yards and a touchdown on 13-of-21 passing. He led scoring drives on NU’s first two possessions, including going 4-of-5 for 45 yards and rushing three times for 24 yards and a 1-yard touchdown.

However, he also threw a potentially crucial interception when he was hit as he threw midway through the fourth quarter, which set Penn State up to try and tie the game.

Take away a 45-yard fly sweep “pass” to Zavier Betts for a touchdown in the second quarter, and McCaffrey only completed 12 passes for 107 yards.

All in all, though, there were far more positives than negatives to take away from McCaffrey’s starting debut. Now he’s got a chance to take a big step forward against an Illinois defense that ranks dead last in the conference against the pass at 272.8 yards allowed per game.

Running back Dedrick Mills had just three carries for 11 yards before leaving the Penn State game with an injury.
Running back Dedrick Mills had just three carries for 11 yards before leaving the Penn State game with an injury. (Nebraska Media Relations)

3. What is the injury status of Dedrick Mills?

There was a notable absence in Nebraska’s backfield for most of the game vs. Penn State, as senior running back Dedrick Mills was sidelined in the first quarter after rushing just three times for 11 yards.

After the game, Frost said that Mills “got nicked up” with an unspecified injury, but added, “he’s going to be fine.”

Mills stayed on the sideline and in uniform for the remainder of the game, and he didn’t show any apparent signs of injury.

Should he end up having to miss any more time, Nebraska will likely utilize Wan’Dale Robinson more at running back with guys like Marvin Scott III and Ronald Thompkins also seeing more snaps.

4. Does Wan’Dale Robinson see the same workload?

Speaking of Robinson, boy, did Nebraska ever make it a point to get him more involved in the offense?

After touching the ball just 10 times through the first two games, the sophomore receiver ended up with five catches and 16 rushes for 72 total yards on Saturday.

That included four receptions and eight carries in the first half alone, and there was a drive in the second quarter where he rushed on four consecutive plays. Going into the game, Robinson hadn’t had a rushing attempt all season.

Given Robinson’s talent and proven production last season, it made total sense to find ways to get the football in his hands. However, he only gained 72 yards on 21 touches.

Look for Robinson to remain a fixture in Nebraska’s game plan this week, especially if Mills is out or limited. But if he’s going to get that big of a workload, there needs to be better production.

5. Will Zavier Betts’ role continue to increase?

One of the best highlights of Saturday’s victory was seeing Nebraska native Zavier Betts break loose for his first touchdown as a Husker in such impressive fashion.

The former Bellevue West standout glided past defenders on his way to the end zone, looking much like he did while helping the Thunderbirds to a Class A state title a year ago.

Betts has now played 29 snaps over the past two games, and he already has four catches for 71 yards, a touchdown, and three first-down conversions. He’s also caught all four of the passes thrown to him thus far.

Nebraska has been waiting for its young wide receivers to emerge this season, and Betts has shown quite a bit to earn a more prominent role.

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