Opponent Preview: Illinois
By Lawrence Price
With the Land of Lincoln Trophy on the line and the desire to end the regular season on a high note, the Northwestern Wildcats will travel to Memorial Stadium to face off against their in-state rival Illinois. The two teams enter after drastically different 2020 seasons. NU boasted a 6-1 regular-season record, including a 28-10 win over Illinois, to make it to the Big Ten Championship. Meanwhile, the Fighting Illini finished 2-6.
The Wildcats currently hold a six-game win streak over Illinois. To give context on how long it’s been since the Fighting Illini’s last win, NU’s roster included New Orleans Saints quarterback Trevor Siemian, a senior, Los Angeles running back Justin Jackson, a first-year, and Cleveland Browns linebacker Anthony Walker Jr., a red-shirt freshman.
Flashing forward to the present, both teams dive into the season with personnel changes on the coaches’ and players’ sides. Northwestern lost at least half of its starters on both sides of the ball, mostly to the NFL Draft and transfers, and an important piece on the sideline in the retirement of defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. These were all capped off by the news of projected starting running back Cam Porter’s season-ending lower-body injury in mid-August.
Although losing fewer players to the draft than NU, the Fighting Illini enter 2021 with a new head coach leading the charge: Former Wisconsin and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema. Like Northwestern, though, the team faces its own injury woes, as Michigan transfer quarterback Brandon Peters left the season opener against Nebraska with a left shoulder injury.
By the time the two squads face off in November, there will be a better understanding of who has the edge in the contest. Even though true, Northwestern will have confidence with its 8-2 record against Illinois in the last 10 years. However, after its impressive win over Nebraska week one, alongside the home-field advantage, Illinois may pack a different punch this time around. Northwestern must win the following two matchups to secure the Land of Lincoln Trophy once again.
1. Evan Hull vs. Mike Epstein/Chase Brown
With Porter’s absence, sophomore running back Evan Hull will be leading the charge in the backfield for the ‘Cats. After rushing for 286 yards and four touchdowns in 2019, Hull saw his carries cut in half last year while sharing the load with players like Porter, Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser. For Illinois, Epstein and Brown stand as the two main carriers. In 2019, Epstein rushed for 367 yards and four touchdowns, while Brown scooped up 540 yards and three touchdowns, finishing top ten in yards in the Big Ten. Northwestern has still got a strong defensive line even after the losses of Earnest Brown IV to the NFL and Eku Leota to Auburn. But with Illinois’ surprising five sacks versus Nebraska (compared to its giving up the most rush yards in the conference last year), it’s likely that whichever running group performs better will be a key factor in the final score.
2. Hunter Johnson vs. Artur Sitkowski
Currently, Sitkowski stands in this battle; if Peters suits up again, it could be him, but for now, the Rutgers transfer will start at QB. After only four starts in two years, the sophomore doesn’t have much experience on the field; however, his 124 yards over 12-15 passes and two touchdowns versus Nebraska was impressive. Northwestern quarterback Hunter Johnson enters the season with a chip on his should as well. The senior struggled during his 2019 campaign: He had one touchdown and four interceptions in six contests. But after winning the starting job over South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski and senior Andrew Marty, the Indiana native has a chance for redemption two years later. As questions still lurk around both quarterbacks, many eyes will be on their performances.
Illinois looked good in its first contest this year against Nebraska, but Northwestern is still the better team. Although Northwestern will need time for the entire team to be in sync because of the many new names in the starting lineup, everything will be sound by the time Nov. 27 comes around. It’s safe to say Illinois coach Bielema will have a warm welcome to this rivalry as the Cats’ will leave him with “better luck next year.”
Final Score: Northwestern 24, Illinois 10