5 Things to watch in Northwestern vs. Illinois
By Ryan Choe
No. 14 Northwestern is coming off an unexpected bye week after its game against Minnesota was canceled due to COVID-19 issues in the Golden Gophers’ program. The team’s lost in an upset to Michigan State two weeks ago, a loss that brought the Wildcats’ undefeated season to an end. Illinois comes to Evanston after losing to No. 16 Iowa last weekend. Here are five key things to watch for Saturday.
1. The Northwestern rushing attack
Our very own John Volk broke down the importance of a successful running game following the loss to Michigan State. After rushing for 130-plus yards in the first three games of the season, Northwestern finds itself in a three-game stretch where it failed to reach 100 total rushing yards.
|First three games (Maryland, Iowa, Nebraska)||102 carries for 603 yards (5.91 avg)|
|Purdue||40 carries for 80 yards (2.0 avg)|
|Wisconsin||23 caries for 24 yards (1.04 avg)|
|Michigan State||37 carries for 63 yards (1.7 avg)|
Furthermore, the running game averaged 2.0 yards or fewer per rush in each of the past three games, showing a severe lack of efficiency. The Northwestern offense needs to turn this struggle around if it has any hope of defeating Illinois (let alone Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game).
This starts with the offensive line. While the unit hasn’t been pointed out very often this season, it is crucial that it steps up after coach Pat Fitzgerald said the offensive line lost too many one-on-one battles in previous games. With a mix of great leadership from redshirt seniors Nik Urban and Gunnar Vogel and talented youth in first-year Peter Skoronski, the offensive line has the potential to revive the running game. Along with a sturdier offensive line, the Northwestern running backs must also step up. Look to see if junior Isaiah Bowser, sophomore Drake Anderson, senior Jesse Brown or redshirt first-year Evan Hull can help reestablish the running game.
2. The Northwestern secondary
Coach Fitzgerald said the entire team has yet to play a complete game all season, and this holds true especially in the secondary. Redshirt first-year Brandon Joseph co-leads the country in interceptions (5) and has the fourth-most tackles on the team (38) behind only the senior linebacker trio of Blake Gallagher (59), Paddy Fisher (58) and Chris Bergin (54). Additionally, junior Greg Newsome II has been playing at an All-Big Ten level in the games he has played. However, because of the particularly impressive play of Newsome and Joseph, opposing offenses have been targeting other parts of the Northwestern secondary, and they’ve had success.
Against Purdue, Northwestern allowed a 40-yard touchdown pass with safety JR Pace in coverage against the scoring tight end. The following week, Wisconsin’s only points of the game came on a 49-yard touchdown pass with junior Cameron Ruiz in coverage. Finally, Ruiz struggled against Michigan State. The Spartans’ offense only scored two touchdowns (both in the first half) on a 75-yard pass and 15-yard pass, and Ruiz was in coverage both times. Unsurprisingly, Ruiz was later benched in parts of the second half against Michigan State.
While the secondary has had an overall strong season, it must ensure that the entire unit plays at a high level. Hopefully the defensive line can record more sacks and generate more pressure on the opposing quarterback (the defense failed to register a single sack in a game for the first time all season against Michigan State). Even if Newsome and Joseph continue to lock down their assignments, it won’t matter if opposing offenses can exploit other parts of the secondary. This starts with limiting the number of big plays and long touchdown passes.
3. Offensive skill players
One positive about the Northwestern offense is the number of offensive skill players that could break out any week. Over the first half of the season, it was sophomore running back Drake Anderson, junior running back Isaiah Bowser, graduate transfer tight end John Raine and senior wide receiver Kyric McGowan who proved the most lethal. The past three weeks have seen the emergence of senior wide receiver Raumad Chiaokhiao-Bowman, where he’s racked up 20 receptions for 235 yards (11.75 yards per reception) and four touchdowns. Senior Riley Lees also grabbed four receptions for 59 yards (both season highs) against Michigan State. These various players make the offense dangerous and unpredictable since opposing defenses need to account for a lot of offensive threats. With proven options across multiple positions, keep an eye out for who steps up in the final stretch of the season.
4. Quarterback Peyton Ramsey
Against Wisconsin, Ramsey did not throw a single interception or turn the ball over for the first time since week one and his ability to take care of the ball made a massive difference in the turnover battle. Unfortunately, this streak did not survive a second game. Ramsey threw two interceptions against Michigan State, which accounted for half of all Northwestern’s turnovers. He also failed to throw a touchdown pass for just the second time this season and completed less than 50% of his passes for the first time this season. It will be important to watch how Ramsey rebounds from arguably his worst performance of the season. Hopefully the offensive line can also give him more time to throw the ball, as the ‘Cats gave up a season-high four sacks to the Spartans. If Ramsey can match his performances from the Maryland, Purdue and Wisconsin games, the ‘Cats should feel better going into the Big Ten Championship Game.
5. The turnover battle
During a Zoom press conference Monday morning, Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald talked about how turnovers and points scored off of turnovers are paramount in rivalry games. After dominating the turnover battle against Wisconsin (five to one), the ‘Cats lost the turnover battle against Michigan State (one to four). Fifteen of the 29 points the Spartans scored came directly off of those turnovers, and the 75-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Rocky Lombardi came after the ‘Cats failed to convert a fourth down. Only seven of the points that Michigan State scored came on a drive started by a Northwestern punt. While Northwestern has won the turnover battle for most of its regular season games, the Michigan State game showed how costly self-inflicted wounds can be for the team. If the ‘Cats win the turnover battle, score points off of forced turnovers and control the time of possession, they should be able to win games.
After being sizable favorites in the Michigan State game and losing, the ‘Cats are looking to avoid a similar storyline against Illinois. While Northwestern has a spot locked in the Big Ten Championship Game next weekend, it can’t afford to look ahead with an emotional rivalry game on deck. It is crucial that Northwestern uses the Illinois game as a momentum-builder and fine-tuner, and it will be interesting to see if the extra week off has the ‘Cats looking rusty or refreshed. If the Northwestern running game can redirect its disappointing trend and the defense shuts down a rising Illinois offense, the ‘Cats will lift the Land of Lincoln Trophy for the sixth-straight year. My prediction is that the ‘Cats leave Ryan Field for the final time this season with a victory.
Score prediction: ‘Cats win, 28-13
Bold prediction: Northwestern’s defense does not allow a second-half point.