A Lot On The Line

Stakes are high as Illinois heads into Evanston for their season finale against Northwestern on Saturday.

It's pretty simple: The winning team is bowl eligible, the losing team starts their offseason.

Well, maybe it isn't really THAT simple, but that's what it comes down to for a pair of 5-and-6 teams in Illinois and Northwestern, who are set to face off at Ryan Field in Evanston. Throw in that it's a rivalry for the "Land of Lincoln" trophy, and perhaps more importantly bragging rights as "Chicago's Big Ten Team", and this one means a lot for both programs.

Illinois holds a 54-48-5 advantage over Northwestern in the all-time series, however, Northwestern has controlled the matchup the last two seasons.

Illinois comes into this game riding the wave of a surprise upset of Penn State in Champaign last weekend in which the Illini defense stepped up and held Penn State to 14 points, thus keeping their bowl hopes alive.

Meanwhile, Northwestern has defeated two straight opponents from the state of Indiana in consecutive weeks, downing Notre Dame in overtime and following up with a decisive win over the Purdue Boilermakers.

True freshman running back Justin Jackson has been the story on offense as of late for the Wildcats. Averaging 4.8 yards per carry and tallying over 1,000 yards on the season heading into this game, Jackson has stepped up early as the workhorse back for Northwestern.

Aside from a couple of games this year, the Illinois rushing defense has struggled mightily this season. Even with a solid performance against Penn State, the unit still ranks near the bottom of the FBS standings at 120th in the nation, surrendering over 258 yards on the ground per game. That puts them at the 2nd to last "BCS" conference team, ahead of only Texas Tech.

However, Illinois has had success against the run when the defense can sell out against it. The defense played aggressively and downhill against both Penn State and Minnesota, their two Big Ten wins, and forced the quarterbacks to beat them through the air.

And with the injury to Trevor Siemian, Illinois' defensive gameplan got a lot more straightforward. Backup Zack Oliver steps in for Siemian, who was clearly cemented as the starter, but his stats on the year are far from impressive. He is just 7 of 19 for 146 yards on the year in limited action. Perhaps Northwestern will take a page out of Illinois' book and run with multiple quarterbacks with Oliver and Alviti like they have in the past with Kain Colter and Siemian.

Speaking of multiple quarterbacks, this will be the final hurrah for Illinois senior quarterback Reilly O'Toole, who came off the bench against Penn State to guide the Illini to the win. Wes Lunt has the ability to stretch the field deep, but only when he has adequate protection from his offensive line. And with injuries and missing personnel on the offensive line, including senior Simon Cvijanovic yet again, Lunt may not have the luxury of that protection.

Which begs the question: Should the Illini go with the senior one more time in his last regular season game with a chance to pilot the team to a bowl game? Or do they go with the big arm like they have much of the season and hope Lunt can regain his rhythm? It's a big decision that could have a big impact on the future of Illinois football.

Lots of talk surrounds this game regarding the future of Tim Beckman at Illinois. Incredible to think that someone's coaching career may essentially come down to one game, but this is a bit of a tipping point for Illinois football. Win and you have not only beaten a rival, but also secured a bowl bid and tally three times as many Big Ten wins (3) in one season than the last two combined (1). Lose, and you have missed a bowl game for the third straight season and the cloud hanging over the program gets darker and darker.

Can the Illinois defense muster one more strong performance with an already depleted defensive front and give the offense a chance to put some points on the board?

You better believe Beckman is hoping so. But it is a rivalry game, so intensity won't be an issue. At the end of the day, this one is going to come down to execution, right?

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