By Eric Rynston-Lobel
As of this moment, the Illinois Fighting Illini are in first place in the Big Ten West (because of the alphabet). Chances are by the time week 12 rolls around, that will not be the case. Since consecutive 7-6 seasons in 2010 and 2011, the Fighting Illini have won more than four games in a season just once. In other words, this program has trended in the opposite direction of Northwestern this decade.
The last time the ‘Cats lost this matchup was 2014 when Illinois stormed into Evanston and won 47-33.
Let’s see how these teams match up five years later:
Northwestern Defense vs. Illinois Offense
After the graduation of quarterback A.J. Bush, the Fighting Illini will likely turn to Michigan transfer Brandon Peters. Though he only played in 10 games for the Wolverines, he did get to play in the Outback Bowl in 2017 and before that was a four-star recruit. So, although he hasn’t had a major opportunity to prove himself yet, I would still expect him to put together a solid year – maybe not spectacular, but solid.
To complement Peters, Illinois returns senior running back Reggie Corbin who rushed for a team-high 1,085 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Also, wide receiver Ricky Smalling who lead the team with five receiving touchdowns enters his junior season. While Illinois’ offense might not be as intimidating as Ohio State, Penn State or some of the other Big Ten powerhouses, it will still take a strong defensive effort for NU to pick up a victory.
Even if this game carries no meaning in terms of playoff/bowl game implications, it will absolutely be a major game for the ‘Cats defense. Whether Hunter Johnson lives up to the hype this year or not, the defense will be what wins this team games. And with this being a final tune-up before a potential Big Ten Championship game (and if not, before a bowl game), the defense needs to use this game to show how dominant it has the potential to be.
Northwestern Offense vs. Illinois Defense
On the other side of the ball, the Fighting Illini return linebacker Jake Hansen who finished tied for the team lead with 95 tackles as well as defensive lineman Bobby Roundtree who lead the team with 7.5 sacks. Granted, that’s only two players, but it’s a solid start.
Where I suspect there might be more problems is in the Illinois secondary. Of the 19 defensive backs on the roster, only two, Stanley Green and Nolan Bernat, will be seniors. Surely it’s a positive for the future of the Illinois program that its secondary will be young, but in terms of the players’ development this season, I’m not sure they’ll be overly consistent.
For the ‘Cats, that should be good news for Hunter Johnson, who ideally is starting at this juncture in the season. Presumably, Johnson will have grown over the course of the season and Isaiah Bowser will be able to help out his quarterback against a decent, but not incredibly intimidating defense.
Northwestern 27 Illinois 13
In the final game of the regular season, the ‘Cats will head to Champaign and pick up a victory. Illinois might keep it close at first, but ultimately the deeper team will prevail. Hunter Johnson will wrap up a good (but not great) first regular season in Evanston and the ‘Cats will await their Bowl game opponent. (Not picking another Big Ten West Championship…sorry)