Football Preview: NU vs. Illinois

By Ashley Tumpowsky

Coming off another tough loss last week at Wrigley Field, the Wildcats will take on their nearby neighbors and spirited rivals this upcoming Saturday: the Fighting Illini.

To continue its six-year win streak in the rivalry game, the Northwestern football team will have to face an always formidable opponent in Illinois. Despite an overall record of 4-7 this season, the Fighting Illini have some crucial wins against tough Big Ten opponents, including Minnesota and Penn State, who at the time of the matchups were ranked No. 20 and No. 7, respectively. 

The key to stopping the Illini? On the defensive end, Jim O’Neil will have to focus his squad on limiting the production of running back Chase Brown. With 893 rushing yards so far on the season, Brown is the biggest threat on the Illinois offense, and the ‘Cats must prevent him from making explosive plays and limit his ability to get to the end zone. 

A better option for the ‘Cats would be to force QB Brandon Peters to throw the ball and make plays in the air, especially in long third-down scenarios. Last Saturday against Iowa, Peters struggled, completing only 16 of 36 throws, in addition to throwing two interceptions. If the Northwestern linebackers can pack it in and help stop the running game, the Northwestern defensive ends should be able to lock down on one-on-one coverage and possibly even come away with some turnovers. 

The Wildcats must also establish some rhythm on offense, however, if they want to be a contender in this game. Assuming Pat Fitzgerald will use both Andrew Marty and Ryan Hillinski at the quarterback position like he did last week against Purdue, the ‘Cats both must get into a groove and find some consistency in hitting their targets, including wide receivers Stephon Robinson Jr. and Malik Washington. 

More than anything, however, whichever quarterback is in the game must make good decisions to take care of the ball. Although he did a better job last week, Marty did throw three interceptions in each of the previous two games, something the ‘Cats cannot afford this weekend. Therefore, despite efforts from the defense, if offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian and this offense can’t produce consistent, long and successful drives, it will be nearly impossible for Northwestern to pull out a win. 

Although NU has lost five straight games, and a bowl game is out of the question, this final matchup of the season is a great opportunity for this team to show its resiliency, build positive momentum going into next year and take the Land of Lincoln trophy back home for the seniors.