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Northwestern vs. Illinois Football Prediction and Preview

Evan Hull, Northwestern Wildcats Football

Evan Hull and and the Wildcats look to snap a five-game losing streak to the archrival Illini when the two teams conclude their season on Saturday in Champaign

Rivalry week continues on Saturday when the Illinois Fighting Illini welcome the archrival Northwestern Wildcats to Champaign. Both teams are out of postseason contention but still have something to play for. The Wildcats (3-8) look to end a five-game losing streak, the Illini (4-7) look to win five games for just the second time since 2015, and both teams want to head into the offseason with a victory. This will mark the 115th meeting between these two programs.

Northwestern at Illinois

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 27 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Illinois -6.5

When Northwestern Has the Ball

Andrew Marty has been the Wildcats' starting quarterback for each of NU's last four games, and he'll get the nod under center to close out the season. During those four games, Marty has completed 55 of 92 passes for 556 yards and four touchdowns. But he's also been sacked 10 times and has thrown six interceptions during that stretch. Marty is one of four quarterbacks Northwestern has used in 2021 (Hunter Johnson, Ryan Hilinski, Carl Richardson), but he's been the most consistent performer despite their offensive struggles.

Also consistent is running back Evan Hull, who's sixth in the Big Ten in both rushing yards (908) and yards per attempt (5.5). He's also tied for seventh in rushing touchdowns (6) and ranks fifth in rushing attempts (164). Despite his numbers, he's only run for 100 or more yards in just three games this season. But he is also NU's third-leading receiver (249 receiving yards). 

The other top targets in the passing game are wide receivers Stephon Robinson Jr. (45 rec., 622 yds., 2 TDs), and Malik Washington (38, 504, 13.3, 2). Despite their standout players, Northwestern sits 10th in the Big Ten in total offense (329.7 ypg), eighth in both passing offense (182.3 ypg) and rushing offense (147.5 ypg), and last in scoring offense (16.8 ppg).

They'll be taking on an Illinois defense that's had issues of its own. The Illini are 10th in the league in terms of total defense (377.6 ypg) and pass defense (223.5 ypg), 11th in run defense (154.1 ypg), and ninth in scoring defense (22.6 ppg).

When Illinois Has the Ball

Quarterback Brandon Peters has continued to persevere and lead this team through the difficult times. Over the Illini's last three games, Peters has completed 37 of his last 64 pass attempts for 518 yards and five touchdowns. But against Iowa last week, he threw two interceptions after only throwing one all season (Week 4 vs. Maryland) and was sacked twice after only getting taken down once in Illinois' two previous games combined (Minnesota, Rutgers). He's battled injury and inconsistency throughout the 2021 campaign, but he's steadied the ship over these final weeks of the season.

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Peters' favorite targets in the passing game have been wide receivers Isaiah Williams (40 rec., 412 yds., 3 TDs) and Casey Washington (19, 226), along with tight end Daniel Barker (15, 167, 4). One thing that's been said too many times to count is how well Illinois has run the ball all season. Chase Brown has been the featured back this season (leads team with 893 rushing yards, 5.7 ypc, and 4 rushing TDs), but he's gotten an assist from both Joshua McCray (507 rushing yards), and Reggie Love III (3.6 ypc).

Despite the talent that the Illini has on this side of the ball, they rank near the bottom of nearly every major offensive category. The Illini rank 115th nationally in total offense (318.0 ypg) and 122nd in passing offense (148.4 ypg) and scoring offense (17.4 ppg) — just above Northwestern. The one average aspect of their offense is a rushing offense that ranks seventh in the Big Ten and 61st nationally (196.6 ypg). 

They will, however, get plenty of opportunities against a Wildcat defense that ranks second-to-last in the conference in total defense (426.8 ypg), third-to-last in scoring defense (27.4 ppg), and 111th nationally against the run (212.6 ypg). But they're much better against the pass, where they rank seventh in the conference (214.2 ypg). 

Final Analysis

Illinois leads this all-time series 55-54-5, but Northwestern has won a school-record six straight in the series. Another win would tie the all-time record of seven straight games, which was set by Illinois from 1913-28 back when they didn't play each other annually. The month of November hasn't been kind to either team in recent seasons. The teams are a combined 1-4 this month, and Northwestern is 5-7 in November since 2019, while Illinois is 6-7 since 2018. 

Expect both teams to run the ball early and often in this game. You can also expect it to be a low-scoring game. But Illinois uses its home-field advantage to break its losing streak against NU.

Prediction: Illinois 17, Northwestern 14

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— Written by Gabe Salgado, who 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.