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Northwestern Wildcats vs. Illinois Fighting Illini Preview and Prediction

Justin Jackson

Justin Jackson

The Northwestern Wildcats trek south to Champaign, Illinois, to take on their Big Ten West Division rival, the Illinois Fighting Illini. This game is going to be a contest of programs heading in opposite directions.

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Northwestern (8-3, 6-2) is coming off a dominating 39-0 victory over Minnesota, the sixth win in a row for the Wildcats. They now have a chance to match their seven-game winning streak from 1996, head coach Pat Fitzgerald's senior season, by beating Illinois on the road..

The Illini are coming off a brutal, water-logged 52-14 beatdown courtesy of Ohio State. It marked a ninth straight loss and demonstrated just how much progress has to be made for head coach Lovie Smith and his assistants to get Illinois back into bowl contention. The Buckeyes scored on their first six possessions, and it was not until the end of the first half that the Fighting Illini could even muster a first down. The challenges of the game and the state of the two programs were well-reflected by @ALionEye, an Illinois fan who covers Illinois for

Northwestern at Illinois

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 25 at 4 p.m. ET

TV Channel: FS1

Spread: Northwestern -17

Three Things to Watch

1. Northwestern's running game vs. Illinois' run defense

Illinois is coming off a game in which it gave up 325 rushing yards to Ohio State. This presents an opportunity for Northwestern senior running back Justin Jackson, who ran for 166 yards on 31 carries last week against Minnesota. With that performance Jackson moved past Michigan’s Mike Hart into fifth place on the Big Ten’s all-time rushing list with 5,139 yards. Another good game on the ground against the Illini could allow Jackson to move past Wisconsin's Montee Ball (5,140) and Indiana's Anthony Thompson (5,299) into third place.

2. Illinois' passing game vs. Northwestern's pass defense

The Illini have struggled at the quarterback spot all season, rotating players at the position. Late in the game against Ohio State, Chayce Crouch landed hard on his shoulder, forcing freshman quarterback Cam Miller into action. No matter which quarterback Illinois plays, he will try to take advantage of a Northwestern defense that ranks last in the Big Ten at 257.5 passing yards per game. The Wildcats do have 13 interceptions (third in the conference), while Illini quarterbacks have combined for twice as many picks (17) as touchdown passes (eight) this season.

3. Northwestern's pass rush vs. Illinois' offensive line

The Wildcats are tied for sixth in the Big Ten in sacks, but are still generating a respectable 2.4 per game. Their standing has more to do with the fact that teams like  Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State (as well as Indiana) also are in the same conference. Either, Northwestern could add to its sack total on Saturday considering the Illini are starting three true freshmen and one redshirt freshman along their offensive line. That’s a reason why Illinois ranks last in the conference in sacks allowed at an average of 3.5 per game (38 total). Only four other FBS teams have done a poorer job when it comes to protecting the quarterback.

Final Analysis

Northwestern is riding a six-game winning streak, while Illinois is mired in a nine-game losing streak. Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith is fully committed to the youth movement, playing true freshmen on both sides of the ball. While Illinois will be playing for pride, Northwestern is playing with positive momentum at its back and will be looking to improve its bowl game destination.

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Prediction: Northwestern 31, Illinois 10

— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He also is writing and podcasting for Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.