There have been plenty of twists and turns to the Big Ten's 2020 season, namely a number of game cancellations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the finish line is near as Northwestern has already punched its ticket to next Saturday's Big Ten Championship Game as champions of the West division. The Wildcats will get ready for their trip to Indianapolis by hosting in-state rival Illinois.
Northwestern (5-1) had an unplanned bye last week when its game against Minnesota was canceled due to the Golden Gophers' COVID-19 issues. The Wildcats lost at Michigan State the previous week thanks to uncharacteristic mistakes that proved to be very costly. The plus side is that NU still claimed the Big Ten West title, its second in the last three years.
The Wildcats will play Ohio State in next week's Big Ten Championship Game. Ohio State's scheduled game with Michigan this Saturday was canceled because of the Wolverines' COVID-19 issues, and originally the Buckeyes would have fallen short of the conference's six-game minimum in order to be eligible for the title game. But the conference reversed course this week, voting to eliminate the eligibility rule. So Ohio State will represent the East in Indianapolis. This will be a rematch of the '18 championship game, which was a dominant victory for the Buckeyes.
Before Northwestern can worry about Ohio State, there's Illinois. The Illini (2-4) saw their two-game winning streak come to an end with last week's home loss to Iowa. Illinois blew a 14-0 second-quarter lead only to watch the Hawkeyes outscore them 35-7 the rest of the way. Prior to Iowa, the Illini had their scheduled game against the Buckeyes canceled due to Ohio State's COVID-19 issues.
This game is a must-win for both teams. Northwestern needs a win to not only have momentum going to Indy, but to also make history against the Illini (more on that shortly). Illinois, however, needs a win to end their season on a high note, and to avoid said history.
Illinois at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 12 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Northwestern -14
When Illinois Has the Ball
Quarterback Brandon Peters doesn't have huge numbers, but he's kept the ship steady since recovering from the coronavirus a few weeks ago. In three games, he's completing 58.1 of his attempts for 408 yards, three touchdowns, has a 129.3 passer rating, and he is fourth on the team in rushing (128 yards, 5.8 ypc, TD). Wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (19 rec., 263 yds., 3 TDs), and tight end Daniel Barker (16, 214, 1) are Peters' favorite weapons in the passing game.
One thing that Illinois has done consistently all season is run the ball. Running back Chase Brown is fifth in the Big Ten in rushing yards (440), while fellow back Mike Epstein is third in yards per attempt (6.1, 338 yards total). Both men have combined for six rushing touchdowns, and their efforts are why Illinois is the conference's second-best rushing offense (210.2 ypg). Overall, the Fighting Illini are averaging 376.2 yards and 21.7 points per game.
On Saturday, Illinois will be lining up against what is arguably one of the best defenses that Northwestern has ever put on the field. Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats are the Big Ten's No. 2 total defense (322.5 ypg) and scoring defense (15.3 ppg, 6th in the nation). They're also third in pass defense (206.2 ypg), fourth in run defense (116.3 ypg), seventh in sacks (10), second in interceptions (12), and fourth in forced fumbles (6).
When Northwestern Has the Ball
Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey has been a revelation for this Wildcats offense. His skill set along with the play-calling of offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian are two of the biggest reasons for Northwestern's turnaround. Ramsey ranks among the Big Ten's top 10 signal callers in passing yards (6th, 1,136), completion rate (9th, 59.1 percent), touchdown passes (5th, 8), and completions (5th, 117). Ramsey has also added 122 rushing yards with two more scores for good measure.
Ramsey complements a Wildcats rushing attack that's led by Drake Anderson (61 att., 252 yds., 2 TDs), and Isaiah Bowser (72, 212, TD). Bajakian's pro-style/spread hybrid playbook has given NU the perfect combination of balance and efficiency. The Wildcats average 327.8 yards and 24.8 points per game. This is a Wildcats team that is solid on both sides of the ball.
Lovie Smith's defense will have their work cut out for them. The Illini are the Big Ten's second-worst total defense (444.2 ypg), fourth-worst passing defense (248.0 ypg), third-worst run defense (196.2 ypg), and fifth-worst scoring defense (32.5 ppg). The Illini, however, do have a solid pass rush going for them, as they rank fourth in the conference in sacks (13). They're also capable of creating turnovers as evidenced by the fact that they only trail Iowa, Northwestern, and Indiana in interceptions (7).
Illinois maintains a slim lead (55-53-5) in the all-time series, but Northwestern has claimed the last five meetings by a combined score of 161-68. What stood out about last year's victory, in particular, is that the Wildcats played the game with mostly third- and fourth-string players because of injuries. A win for NU will give them six in a row over Illinois, which would be a school record. And Northwestern will reach that historical mark, as the improvements they've made on both sides of the ball make them a more dangerous team this season.
Prediction: Northwestern 27, Illinois 20
Podcast: CFB Rankings, Coaching Changes and Week 15 Preview and Predictions
— 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 can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of @NUFBFamily)