Northwestern closes the 2017 regular season with a matchup against in-state rival Illinois once again. Who will take home the Land of Lincoln Trophy this time?
On November 25 in Champaign, the Big Ten’s most famous rivalry resumes. OK, so that’s not quite true, but the battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy is often a good one: four of the eight games since the name of the trophy was changed have been decided by ten points or fewer. Northwestern has won the last two meetings, including a victory in Evanston this past year that clinched bowl eligibility for the Wildcats. The Fighting Illini may not be in that position this year, but sometimes the greatest motivation for success comes in the form of a bronze hat.
It’s probably not that much of a surprise that one of the nation’s least experienced teams (28 different guys started a game for the first time in their careers for Illinois last year) experienced some of the nation’s greatest growing pains, going 3-9 in Lovie Smith’s first year at the helm. The former NFL Coach of the Year brings with him a highly experienced coaching staff, but his roster sports just nine total seniors, and only 11 total returning starters.
Illinois Offense vs. Northwestern Defense
The Illinois offense was not terribly good in 2016. There’s no doubt that injuries across the field, most pressingly at the quarterback position, fed directly into a unit that was second-to-last in the Big Ten in both scoring offense and total offense – inconsistent personnel breeds inconsistent play. Illinois trotted out three different QBs: veteran Wes Lunt, who started seven games; redshirt-freshman Jeff George, Jr, who started four; and redshirt-sophomore Chayce Crouch, who made one start before suffering an injury. Lunt is off to the pros, and it looks like Crouch is lined up to start the 2017 opener against Ball State. Crouch impressed in his lone 2016 start with 137 rushing yards against Purdue – the fourth-most rushing yards by an Illini QB ever. Northwestern has struggled at times against dual-threat quarterbacks (looking at you, Tommy Armstrong), so it will be interesting to see how a greatly inexperienced NU linebacking corps works to contain Crouch.
George appears to be a decent backup option should Crouch crumble, the strength of the Illini offense will probably lie in the run game. Senior RB Kendrick Foster (720 rushing yards, 554 kick return yards) was one of only four players in the nation with at least 700 rushing yards and 500 kick return yards in 2016, and finished seventh in the conference in all-purpose yards. Now-sophomore Reggie Corbin also tallied more than 500 yards rushing, forcing 2015 leading rusher Ke’Shawn Vaughn to transfer. With two solid backs and a quarterback that also has running capabilities, Northwestern’s front will need to be on its toes.
On the flanks, Malik Turner is the clear headliner. The now-senior was tied for fourth in the conference in receptions per game and also cracked the top ten in receiving yards per game, while pulling in a very respectable six touchdowns. Illinois fans have likely been saying this for years, but watch out for Mike Dudek this season. A freshman All-American in 2014, he’s missed every single game the last two years due to injury, but is expected to be ready to go. Even still, this looks like an on-paper matchup win for a Northwestern secondary that is anchored by one of the strongest safeties in the entire country, Godwin Igwebuike. Turner has some downfield potential, but it remains to be seen if his quarterbacks can get the ball to him there.
And let’s not overlook the offensive line, which could be a relative bright spot for the Illini this year. The big men are anchored up the middle by junior Nick Allegretti, who’s on the Rimington Award watch list as an upper-echelon center, as well as on the outside by senior tackle Christian DiLauro, one of just two guys on the roster with more than 20 career starts. Northwestern’s defensive line ought to be good, so this could be a good battle in the last week of the season.
Illinois Defense vs. Northwestern Offense
The Illinois defense in 2016 wasn’t terribly good either. The Illini allowed the fourth-most yards and third-most points per game in the league last year, doomed by a dismal run defense that permitted a league-high 35 rushing scores (5 of which came courtesy of Justin Jackson and Company in Evanston last year). But even with that said, the Illini pass defense was excellent, allowing the third-fewest passing yards per game with only 11 aerial TDs surrendered, tied for fewest in the league.
The reason for that success is simple: pass rush. Defensive ends Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot combined for 14 sacks last year, helping themselves to postseason all-Big Ten recognition from the media. Illinois finished 10th in the nation in tackles for loss per game, and only one pair of guys in the conference combined for more TFLs than did Phillips and Smoot. The problem is, they’re both gone. The Illini return their second-leading tackler in linebacker Tre Watson and their top corner in Jaylen Dunlap, but who will produce those pressure numbers from last year? Dunlap is a solid corner that ought to do a good job against an NU wideout contingent that doesn’t look great, but the front seven might be in for another long day against Jackson and friends.
As mentioned, Kendrick Foster is a pretty good return man, so the Illini are in decent shape there, assuming they still utilize him as such. Caleb McLaughlin had a decent first year as the Illinois kicker, and he looks to be back for his redshirt-junior year. He converted just 70.6% of his field goal tries in 2016, but he did hit one from 53 yards out, tied for the longest kick made by anyone in the Big Ten. He was also one of just five conference kickers to convert every single one of his PATs. For comparison, Northwestern’s Jack Mitchell converted just 66.7% of his kicks, with a long of 40 yards. He, too, however, was quite good at PATs, missing just one all year. Mitchell is, of course, gone, while McLaughlin will look to settle in in his second year staring into the uprights.
Illinois was really good at two things last year: getting sacks, and stopping opponents on fourth-down conversion chances (opponents converted just five times in 16 attempts, the fewest successes in the conference). What’s amazing, though, is how poor the Illini were at converting on third and fourth down and, more relatedly, how poor they were at stopping their opponents from converting on third down. Even though no team had a better success rate at stopping fourth-down tries, only one team (Purdue) had a worse success rate at stopping third-down tries, a remarkable paradox that must be addressed. The Illini were also dead last in time of possession and did not throw the ball very well, and even with some new personnel on offense and a greatly experienced coaching staff, it’s hard to imagine the Illini being far better than they were in 2016. And they have a tough schedule this year, as well, as nine of their 12 opponents appeared in a bowl last season. It’s hard to envision more than five wins for Illinois this year. Even still, expect a good match when these two teams duke it out in late November in Champaign.