By Ari Levin
Hat hat hat hat hat hat. Hat hat hat? Hat!
The Land of Lincoln trophy (often referred to as the hat game; the trophy resembles Lincoln’s top hat) has lost some of its luster the last few years. The stakes have been lowered, the rivalry weakened, and the result has become a foregone conclusion. The Fighting Illini will look to change that and bring the trophy back to Champaign for the first time since 2014.
Last year’s contest was memorable for Wildcat fans, and less so for Illini supporters. A second straight dominant victory over a conference opponent to close the regular season. Tyler Lancaster received a pair of carries as the game was quickly out of hand. Northwestern trounced Illinois by a final score of 42-7.
Illinois faces a different challenge this year coming in to Ryan Field over Thanksgiving weekend. Heading into the season, Northwestern holds the longest win streak among power conference teams, while Illinois has lost ten straight. It’s unlikely both streaks continue into this game, but these two teams are trending in opposite directions.
Love Smith looks to turn things around in his third year in Illinois after only winning five games between his first two seasons. The Illini haven’t finished above .500 since 2011 and haven’t won more than seven games in over a decade.
Illinois Offense vs Northwestern Defense
Illinois adds a new offensive coordinator for 2018 in Rod Smith (not the Cowboys’ backup running back) after ranking 127th in 2017 with 15.4 points per game.
Quarterback for Illinois remains in flux. Last year’s starter, Jeff George Jr., transferred to Michigan for his final season, leaving the likely starter as AJ Bush, a graduate transfer from Virginia Tech who makes Illinois his fourth school. Bush impressed in camp and quickly won the job. He saw action in five games last year, with more yards and attempts rushing than passing, but the numbers are not shabby. Bush went 5-7 passing with 70 yards and a TD in the Hokies’ 50-point win over North Carolina.
Since this will be the last game of the regular season, something might change before then, of course. The next option is likely Cam Thomas, the dual-threat who faced Northwestern last year but completed just 42% of his passes.
Justice Williams, who projects to be Illinois’ primary receiver, is another player to watch in the passing game. Williams transitioned from linebacker and special teams to receiver in the offseason and has made some impressive plays in training camp.
The rushing game ranked last in the Big Ten in 2017 and in the bottom ten of FBS schools, which is a bad sign for Big Ten play. That will likely turn around under Rod Smith’s system. Mike Epstein returns; he was the leading rusher last year despite playing in just five games. The offensive line also looks to be slightly improved and will return good production from Honorable Mention All-Big Ten Nick Algretti.
The offense will face a tough matchup against Northwestern’s defense. The offensive line will have to hold strong against Northwestern’s very good defensive line, and while the Sky Team may not be what it used to be, Illinois needs to find a consistent passing attack to stand any chance offensively.
Illinois Defense vs Northwestern Offense
The Fighting Illini ranked in the top half of the Big Ten in passing defense last season, though that can possibly be attributed to teams running out the clock with a big lead.
Illinois allowed over 30 points per game, and four times allowed at least 40 points. They’ll need to be much better than that to stand any chance in Big Ten competition.
One of the top performers defensively will likely be safety Stanley Green Jr., who has forced six fumbles in his first two years and added 70 tackles last year. Green is known for his big hits, some of which have crossed the line to targeting. If he can play smarter, he’ll be a very dangerous safety for Big Ten quarterbacks and receivers.
In the running game, Illinois is led by a defensive line that wore down as the season went on, allowing over 300 yards on the ground in each of the last two games. They have some young talent, including four-sack Bobby Roundtree entering his sophomore year. If everyone stays healthy, they’ll have the depth rotation-wise for a chance at a good line.
For Northwestern, by the end of the season, Clayton Thorson should be fully healthy if all goes according to plan. If he and Jeremy Larkin keep the ability they showed last season, this could be a long game for Illinois’ defense.
Kicking and punting is certainly the strength of Illinois heading into 2018. Chase McLaughlin is one of the more reliable kickers in the Big Ten. The senior is perfect in his career on extra points (43-43) and has converted 70% of his field goals. McLaughlin is 16-17 on kicks from within 39 yards and has a career long of 53 set in 2016.
Blake Hayes was the Big Ten All-Freshman punter last year, averaging 42 yards with a very active workload, and a long of 64 yards. Last season was the Australia native’s first playing American Football, converting from Australian rules football.
Illini football has had a tough stretch these past few years. One can only hope that they find a way to turn things around. By the time these teams meet in November, we will know a lot more about where they stand in relation to each other. But for now, the safest prediction is another blowout win for the Wildcats.