Preview: Northwestern vs. Illinois

At the end of an inconsistent season, Northwestern can secure bowl eligibility with a win over in-state rival Illinois at home in the Wildcats’ regular season finale.

Sound familiar?

The Fighting Illini topped the ‘Cats 47-33 in the 2014 finale at Ryan Field, with both teams standing at 5-6. Northwestern quarterback Zach Oliver started for the injured Trevor Siemian, but threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles in a sloppy performance.

The Wildcats hope to play better this time around and win their second straight over Illinois after a 24-10 triumph at Soldier Field last November

The situation is certainly different for both teams than it was a year ago. Northwestern needs a win to secure bowl eligibility after notching a program-record 10 regular season wins last year.

Illinois, meanwhile, has struggled under first-year head coach Lovie Smith. The Illini stand at 3-8 and 2-6 in the Big Ten.

Northwestern comes off a disappointing 29-12 loss at Minnesota last week. The potent offense that the Wildcats enjoyed at Purdue two weeks ago disappeared, as Northwestern converted only two of their 15 third down attempts against the Gophers.

The Wildcats got good news this week, however, as star wide receiver Austin Carr was left off the weekly injury report. Carr, a Biletnikoff finalist, was on the receiving end of a helmet-to-helmet hit in last week’s game that forced him out until this week.

The Illini are also coming off a tough loss, dropping a 28-0 contest in the home finale in Champaign. Illinois’ offensive struggles continued in the shutout loss, failing to reach 200 total yards or 100 rushing yards for the second straight game.

Despite those struggles, Northwestern’s defense has to keep an eye on some of the Illini’s offensive weapons. Wide receiver Malik Turner has the tenth-most receiving yards in the Big Ten along with four touchdowns so far in 2016.

More importantly, Illinois boasts an explosive running game. The Illini have five 50-plus runs this season, tying them for tenth in the country. Leading rusher Kendrick Foster is averaging 5.8 yards per rush to go along with seven touchdowns on the ground and a pair of receiving scores. Backup Reggie Corbin is no slouch, averaging 7.0 yards per carry.

Northwestern will hope to lean on its running back. Junior Justin Jackson had 90 yards and a touchdown last week at Minnesota and will look to top 100 rushing yards for the fifth time this season. Jackson needs 62 yards to top Northwestern great Darnell Autry for third on the school’s all-time rushing list.

With a win, Northwestern can qualify for back-to-back bowl games for the first time since the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

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