Saturday at 11 CST, the 8-3 Northwestern Wildcats will battle the 2-9 Fighting Illini of Illinois at Ryan Field. Northwestern will be riding high after a big victory on the road in East Lansing against Michigan State to push them to the brink of the top 25.
The Illini on the other hand are wrapping up a miserable season under first year coach Tim Beckman. Illinois notched two early wins against Western Michigan and Charleston Southern, but has since dropped eight straight games including beat downs at the hands of Michigan at the Big House (45-0) and at the Horseshoe against Ohio State (52-22).
Illinois is led by their Junior dual-threat QB Nathan Scheelhaase. Scheelhaase has thrown for 1270 yards on 60.3% passing while adding a shade under 300 rushing yards and 8 total TD’s. As a whole, Illinois’ offense has struggled trying to find a replacement for their graduated go-to receiver AJ Jenkins, who had 1276 receiving yards last season.
These two teams met last year in Champaign in the battle for the Land of Lincoln trophy and it was the 24th ranked Illini who would squeak out a 38-35 victory behind 391 Nathan Scheelhaase passing yards. In order for Northwestern to avoid a similar fate, they will need to:
1) Get stops on early downs
Illinois is a run first team. They have three players with over 280 rushing yards and will use the run game to open up play action. Keeping the Illini in 3rd and long will limit the playcalling and force Nathan Scheelhaase to be a pocket passer.
2) Get the running game going early
Illinois brings in the 84th ranked rushing defense and has proved to be very susceptible to big days in the run game. The Illini surrendered 353 rushing yards to the Michigan Wolverines, 330 rushing yards against the Ohio State Buckeyes, and 173 yards to the Wisconsin Badgers. If the ‘Cats want to move the ball, it’s going to have to be on the ground
3) Finish. The. Game
As is always a key with Northwestern, they need to play all four quarters and avoid yet another 4th quarter collapse. In the meeting of these teams last year, Northwestern took a 28-17 lead in to the 4th quarter before eventually losing 38-35. Northwestern’s strong 4th quarter showing against Michigan State should give the team confidence going forward.
NU 38 – Illinois 13
Northwestern should dominate this game from the starting whistle to go to 9-3. Expect a heavy dose of Mark and Colter to carry the Wildcats’ offense.