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Northwestern Wildcats vs. Illinois Fighting Illini: 3 things to watch

The Land of Lincoln Trophy is on the line in the season finale as the Northwestern Wildcats takes on the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern Wildcats

When: Sat. Nov. 25, 2017; 4 p.m. ET/3 p.m. CT
Where: Champaign, Ill.; Memorial Stadium (60,670)
TV: FS1
All-Time Series: Illinois leads 55-50-5
Last Meeting: Northwestern won 42-21 (Nov. 26, 2016)
Line: Northwestern (-16.5)

The Northwestern Wildcats have not lost since Oct. 7 against Penn State. It seems like a lifetime ago.

On that day on Oct. 7, it felt like the pitchforks were out. Fans wanted to burn the offense down after watching Clayton Thorson, a three-year starter, struggle to get the ball moving against an elite defense. Things were unoriginal. It seemed the Wildcats were going away from their best players.

Northwestern’s Big Ten hopes were done before the season seemingly started. And that has led this team to salvage something from this season.

A six-game win streak at almost any other season would position the team for something far more meaningful than what Northwestern is playing for. The Wildcats are not likely to get a trip to a January bowl game despite potentially eight or nine wins in the regular season. Other marquee names will push them down the bowl chart.

Northwestern will end up in a nice bowl game against a quality opponent from the SEC or Pac-12. It has been their destiny for several weeks.

That has not stopped Northwestern from putting in the wins and playing like they are still trying to win the Big Ten, even if that became mathematically impossible and was always extremely improbable.

Three straight overtime wins helped buoy the team and perhaps make them look better than they really are. But the Wildcats won those games. That is all that matter. The pitchforks are put away. Northwestern can say the team had a solid season. Not the season it wanted, but solid.

There is only one way to finish that off — a seventh straight victory overall and retaining the Land of Lincoln Trophy.

Illinois has had the opposite kind of season from Northwestern. The Illini lacked stability at quarterback thanks to injuries and inconsistent play. Really it is hard to point to anything consistently good about 2-9 Illini.

They are not a dynamic offense and their defense has a lot of holes.

Maybe the only good thing to say is that this is a young team and Lovie Smith is getting his growing team plenty of experience. Maybe they will turn that potential into something down the road. It just is not happening right now.

And even hosting Northwestern, it feels like Illinois will have to play a near-perfect game to compete.

The Wildcats have played some great football in the last two months. And a seven-game win streak feels fairly certain in this rivalry game. Here are three things to watch:

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What is the gameplan?

Against weaker opponents early in the season in non-conference play, Northwestern tends to go with a vanilla gameplan on both sides. That is likely to hide things from future Big Ten opponents. It creates a scenario where games are closer than they should be. Northwestern rarely blows those teams out.

In the final game of the season, there is no reason not to open up the playbook. And a big win always looks very good for in-state recruiting battles.

The Wildcats are not likely to hold back in the playbook now. They will have a month to prepare for a bowl game. So the conservative, vanilla gameplan should be out the window.

The Wildcats should be looking to blitz and pressure the Illini. Their lack of a consistent push anywhere offensively should play to the Wildcats’ advantage. Their poor defense should enable the Cats to get whatever they want offensively.

That does not mean the Wildcats should not tailor a gameplan to defeat the Illini or to exploit specific matchups. But Northwestern has the talent and ability to win this game running away.

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Quarterback Shuffle

It will be interesting to see what Illinois can do throwing the football. That is undoubtedly Northwestern’s biggest weakness defensively. But it is the position Illinois seems least likely to take advantage of.

Quarterback-of-the-future Cam Thomas is out with an injury, leaving the team to run with Jeff George Jr. again. George has thrown for just 1,273 yards on 181 attempts. He is averaging 181.9 passing yards per game.

It does not help that star receiver Mike Dudek has been out for the season with yet another injury.

Illinois is short on offensive weapons and short on consistency at quarterback, despite George’s experience. This is a team that has not had much success this season.

Against a defense that gets after the quarterback and has stopped the run consistently all year, Illinois will need to get something from its depleted passing game.

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Clayton Thorson’s big day?

Illinois has the 39th best pass defense in the country. It is one of the few things the Illini do effectively.

If there is a window for Illinois to win, it will be in getting to Clayton Thorson and forcing him to make mistakes. And Thorson will make some mistakes. He has 11 interceptions this year. And Northwestern relies heavily on its passing game to take its offense to another level.

The Wildcats will get Justin Jackson the ball. And Illinois will load the box to stop him. That will make Thorso and his throwing more important.

When he makes mistakes and throws interceptions, Northwestern’s offense is not nearly as special. The Wildcats are very vulnerable. Illinois will have to force turnovers and force these mistakes to have a chance in this one.

Prediction: Northwestern 35, Illinois 13

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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