This one should be a cakewalk, walkover, rout… whatever adjective you want to throw on the fire works for me but this is also the Northwestern Wildcats. A team that somehow makes things interesting even when they look to be clearly in hand. However, this year, those games mostly involved superior teams. The Illinois Fighting Illini are not one of them.
“Eye On The Enemy”: Illinois
This has been a tough season for the “Orange Crush” who had decent expectations with the departure of the enigmatic Ron Zook and the arrival of Tim Beckman from the MAC. He was supposed to bring his “uptempo” offense to the Big Ten and it was going to bring the sizzle back to Champaign. Oops.
Instead, this team has been a hot mess that can’t run the ball despite having two decent running backs in Donovann Young and Josh Ferguson. A major issue has been the fact the Illini have been getting behind in games so early that they have almost no choice but to exclusively throw.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase hasn’t been great but he also has been banged up quite a bit. It seems like he just can’t get any rhythm and despite his decent game against the Purdue Boilermakers, he seems to be mailing it in.
The Illinois offensive line meanwhile has been a disaster although there are some bright spots on the other side of the ball.
Freshman Mason Monheim has really had a great year racking up 74 tackles. Both Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan have been solid on the defensive line. Linebacker Jonathan Brown won’t play for the 3rd straight game but who knows where his head is at anyways. Rumors have him headed off to the NFL after this game.
I expect the Wildcats to continue their use of the option game early and often. Quarterback Kain Colter was relatively ineffective last week against a strong Michigan State Spartans front 7 but the Illini are not nearly as good as that. Venric Mark is back after being limited due to a head injury. I think the Wildcats hope to put the dagger in early.
However, if the Illini hang around and Northwestern needs a quick score they can always plug in Trevor Siemian. The Illinois pass defense is atrocious Every single week they give up huge plays through the air and for a team that has adopted a “run first” mentality, this is the week to get your receivers touches. Christian Jones could be a major factor there, especially down the seams.
This game means something to both teams. The Illini have continued their “trash talk” of the Northwestern program despite their 2 and 9 record. Head coach Tim Beckman calls the Wildcats “the school up north” and has supposedly mocked Pat Fitzgerald‘s nickname of “Fitz”. All this should have the blood boiling not only on the field but in the stands as well. With temperatures dipping into the low 30’s for kickoff, perhaps that isn’t so bad after all.
However, the result on the field should not be in doubt. A win here for Northwestern almost guarantees a New Year’s Day bowl with a trip, at the very least, to the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville. If the chips fall into place, with perhaps the Michigan Wolverines going to the BCS as an “at-large” team, Northwestern could even head to Capitol One Bowl which is known as perhaps the best “non BCS” game. First thing is first. Beat Illinois. That shouldn’t be that hard after all. Northwestern 31-17.
Like my article? Hate it? Let me know on Twitter (@tmichaelcronin). I look forward to your thoughts!