When: Sat. Nov. 26, 2016; 12 p.m. ET
Where: Evanston, Ill.; Ryan Field (47,130)
All-Time Series: Illinois leads 55-49-5
Last Meeting: Northwestern won 24-14 (2015)
Line: Northwestern (-15.5)
The last time Northwestern needed a win in its final game to reach bowl eligibility ended up being Trevor Siemian’s last game at Northwestern. Actually, the current Denver Broncos quarterback did not play that game, having torn his ACL the week before against Purdue.
The Wildcats had to rely on backup quarterbacks to try and lead them to victory and the energy — especially considering the students are home for the annual rivalry game and Illini fans invaded Ryan Field as opponents are want to do at the Cats’ home — was just not there. The Wildcats fell behind big early, came back and then fell apart again, ending a disappointing season a game short.
Illinois walked off the field with that coveted sixth win, saving Tim Beckman’s job for at least one more year.
Northwestern’s season started with that lack of energy and bitter disappointment. Going 0-2 put the team in a big hole. But here the Wildcats are — a win from bowl eligibility needing to beat their (struggling) archrivals to clinch that coveted bowl trip and salvage something from a season that has been equal parts frustrating and exhilarating.
And Illinois is getting served to them on something of a platter.
The Illini have struggled on both ends of the field. They have lacked the same scoring punch Illinois fans have been known for the last few years. Lovie Smith has struggled to shift the team’s mentality this year.
Illinois has lost much of its offensive punch, averaging fewer than 20 points per game. But the Illini can still put some yards on the board against a defense that is unprepared.
Rivalry games have a way of changing the equation, though. And anything may go when the teams meet at Ryan Field this time around.
1 Burning Question: Can Northwestern attack without Austin Carr?
Clayton Thorson has had an up-and-down sophomore campaign for the Wildcats. He is unquestionably the team’s quarterback moving forward, but his distribution has been inconsistent at best. His accuracy has come and gone throughout the year.
Thorson at times looks like a stud quarterback, able to make throws into tight windows and accurately across the field. And then at other times he skips passes underneath.
For Thorson, his security blanket in Austin Carr has bailed him out of so many issues. Unfortunately for Northwestern, it’s not a sure thing the team will have him this weekend after he took a nasty hit (called targeting) and left the game.
Pat Fitzgerald said during his Monday press conference that Carr is day to day with a further update coming Thursday. Assumedly he is in whatever concussion protocol Northwestern has.
Fitz on Austin Carr: "He's feeling good. I'd probably list him as day-to-day, but we'll give an official update on Thursday."
— Inside NU (@insidenu) November 21, 2016
Carr has 80 catches for 1,170 yards this season, including 12 touchdowns. He averages more than 100 yards receiving per game. Thorson looks to Carr even when he is not open and Carr somehow makes the catch.
How will Northwestern’s offense look without that safety valve? That is a big question if he is unable to go.
The Wildcats have some other solid receivers — Andrew Scanlan, Solomon Vault and even Justin Jackson have found a niche in the pass game. But Carr is the one that makes it all go.
2 Key Stats
–213.8: Illinois gives up 213.8 rushing yards per game this year as the team’s defense has really struggled. Northwestern is a big running team though. Justin Jackson has made a living wearing down and breaking down defenses in the long course of a game. The Illini will have to decrease this number to have a shot against Northwestern.
— -6.2: Northwestern’s net yards per game is 6.2 yards per game. Teams are outgaining the Wildcats on a per game basis, which is odd considering the team’s defensive solidity this season and some of the offensive strengths the team began to show.
3 Key Players
Malik Turner, Illinois WR: Northwestern’s secondary has struggled at time this year. Injuries have certainly depleted the group talent wise. And so the Wildcats are always on guard against a big passing game. Even with the Illini’s passing troubles, Turner is a dangerous weapon with 37 catches for 548 yards and four touchdowns this season.
Flynn Nagel, Northwestern WR/PR: Flynn Nagel has not had a big break in the punt game since the Iowa game. Teams know to avoid the speedster. With Austin Carr likely hampered, at least a little bit, Northwestern is going to want to get Nagel the ball more in space to run and cause havoc in the secondary. Punt to Nagel at your own risk too.
Carroll Phillips, Illinois DE: Northwestern’s biggest weakness at this point is the offensive line. Whenever Clayton Thorson has struggled, it is because the offensive line does not give him enough time to throw or he is getting chased around. The Illini will need to get a good pass rush and Phillips has done that with eight sacks and 17.0 tackles for a loss.
4 Staff Predictions
Andy: Northwestern 38-10
Dave: Northwestern 34-7
Phil H.: Northwestern 32-17
Philip R.: Northwestern 28-10
Zach: Northwestern 28-10
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.
When: Sat. Nov. 25, 2017; 4 p.m. ET/3 p.m. CT
Where: Champaign, Ill.; Memorial Stadium (60,670)
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:
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.
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.
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
Every Big Ten West division team’s biggest question following spring football
Spring camps are finished, what questions remain for teams in the Big Ten West division?
Michigan has arrived back in Ann Arbor, meaning spring football is finally and officially done across the Big Ten. College football’s annual rite of passage is also done, and there is plenty of curiosity to go around.
That means it is time to take stock of where things sit heading in to the summer workout sessions and the season ahead. It is also the perfect time to really dive deep in to what we did and didn’t see this spring.
Let’s start with the Big Ten West division, which had two new head coaches and another head coach with his first real spring camp in the books. Minnesota got the P.J. Fleck era under way and Purdue welcomed Jeff Brohm’s high-flying offensive attack to the division. Meanwhile, Illinois’ Love Smith finally got to run a full spring practice without rushing things.
Which teams answered questions, which ones have big-time questions to answer this fall? Let us take a look at every Big Ten West division teams’ biggest question post-spring football.
Every Big Ten West team’s biggest recruiting battle before national signing day
It seems like only yesterday that a Big Ten team was hoisting the national championship trophy, but we’re actually inching closer to the biggest day of the offseason — national signing day.
That means recruits are taking last-minute visits, coaches are crisscrossing the country to visit players and offers are going out on a nearly daily basis. To say these next few weeks will be crazy is a bit of an understatement, however the Big Ten is in on some major battles nationally and regionally as we head down the homestretch of the 205 recruiting cycle.
That means every team is putting out maximum effort to get the guys they want to sign to actually sign and fax in national letter of intent on the first Wednesday in February.
It also means that battles are heating up all over the country. Which battles are the Big Ten involved in? Let’s start by looking at the biggest battles for the Big Ten West.