Since 1892, the Northwestern Wildcats (7-4, 7-1 Big Ten) and the Illinois Fighting Illini (4-7, 2-6) have battled it out on the gridiron for college football supremacy in the State of Illinois. This Saturday will be the 111th meeting between these two schools (Illinois leads 55-51-5), and the 20th-ranked Wildcats have won five of the last six encounters by a combined score of 228-137.
Since 2009, the winner of this game also has been awarded the Land of Lincoln Trophy. Northwestern has claimed that trophy three straight times and six of the nine overall. Illinois' last win against the Wildcats came in 2014.
For Northwestern, an even bigger game awaits when it will play either Michigan or Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis on Dec. 1. Meanwhile, the Illini are looking to close out their season with some positive momentum after losing two in a row and five of their last six.
Illinois at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Northwestern -18
Three Things to Watch
1. Illinois' effective running game
If there is one thing the Illini have done well this season, it's run the ball. Last week against Iowa, Illinois ran for 138 yards on 43 carries. Sophomore running back Ra'Von Bonner led the way with 100 yards on 21 carries. While those numbers may not jump off of the page, consider that entering the game the Hawkeyes were giving up an average of 96 rushing yards per game.
For the season, the Illini are tied for 11th in the nation in rushing offense at 251.1 yards per game. The Iowa game represented their second lowest total of the season (96 vs. Purdue). In every other game, Illinois has finished with at least 210 rushing yards, including a season-best 430 in the win over Minnesota a couple of weeks ago. The Illini also have 25 rushing touchdowns, fourth most in the Big Ten.
Northwestern enters this game fourth in the conference and 32nd nationally against the run at 132.9 rushing yards per game allowed. Some teams, namely Purdue (202 yards), Nebraska (201), Michigan (180), and Wisconsin (164), have had success on the ground against the Wildcats. Illinois is ranked ahead of all of these teams in rushing offense except the Badgers (fourth). Does that mean the Illini will have some success against the Northwestern? They need to if they want to have any chance at pulling off the upset.
2. Illinois' ineffective defense
Unfortunately, the defensive struggles continue for the Illini, who lost 63-0 at home last week to Iowa with the offense responsible for seven touchdowns. Over the last six games, Illinois has given up an average of 51 points and 552 yards per game. Not surprisingly, the Illini are ranked near the bottom of FBS in both scoring (40.8 ppg, 124th) and total (520.8 ypg, 127th) defense. In fact, just two teams (Oregon State and Connecticut) are surrendering more yards per game than Illinois.
Northwestern is not an offensive juggernaut by any means. The Wildcats actually rank below the Illini in both points (23.6 vs. 26.9) and yards (350.0 vs. 406.3) per game, but this has been a different offense since freshman Isaiah Bowser took over as the starting running back in October. Over the last five games, Bowser has totaled 568 rushing yards on 141 carries (4.0 ypc) to go along with six touchdowns. Those five games also represent four of Northwestern's top rushing outputs for the season.
Containing Bowser should be the focus of an Illini defense that has basically been run over (243.8 ypg allowed) this season.
While the Wildcats' running game has gained some steam lately, the same can't be said for the passing attack. Clayton Thorson hasn't completed more than 17 passes in a game since beating Nebraska back on Oct. 13. What's more, the senior has thrown more interceptions (five) than touchdowns (three) over his last four games. Some of that can be attributed to game plan, but pass protection (nine sacks allowed in last three games) also has been an issue. If Illinois can somehow slow down Bowser and Northwestern on the ground, it will force Thorson to do something he hasn't really done in more than a month — beat a team with his arm.
3. Northwestern’s defense has been solid lately
As was mentioned earlier, the Wildcats' offense doesn't exactly pile up the yards or points. But it hasn't needed to thanks to the defense. In Big Ten play, Northwestern is giving up just 19.1 points per game. The only two conference teams to score more than 20 against the Wildcats are Purdue and Nebraska (31 each), and their game against the Boilermakers was the season opener.
Northwestern's defense has played a key part in each of its last four wins. The Wildcats limited Rutgers to 188 total yards back on Oct. 20, forced Wisconsin to commit three turnovers in their upset of the Badgers the following week, held Iowa scoreless at home in both the first and fourth quarters of their Big Ten West-clinching victory, and sacked Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan four times last week.
The Wildcats will have a tough time slowing down Illinois' running game, but this defense has already shown that it's capable of getting the job done.
Northwestern has dominated its in-state archrival recently. The Wildcats have won three in a row against Illinois, five of the last six and head coach Pat Fitzgerald is 8-4 against the Illini during his tenure in Evanston. Yes, Northwestern has a much bigger game to focus on next week, but as it showed last week in beating Minnesota, this team knows how to take things one game at a time. The Wildcats are too disciplined to allow any sort of slip up, especially at home and against a team with as many defensive issues as Illinois.
Prediction: Northwestern 30, Illinois 17
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.