PREVIEW: Illinois vs. Northwestern

For second straight season, Illinois needs a win against Northwestern to earn bowl eligibility. Unlike last year, Northwestern is not playing for a bowl, rather bowl positioning.

Illinois (5-6, 2-5 B1G) vs.

No. 16 Northwestern (9-2, 5-2)

Time: 2:30 p.m. CT

TV: ESPNU; Taylor Zarzour (play-by-play) and Al Groh (analyst)

Site: Soldier Field; Chicago, Ill. This year's Soldier Field game is the first of a three-game series here, with Illinois hosting Northwestern in Chicago in 2015, 2017 and 2019.

Last week: Illinois lost at Minnesota 33-24; Northwestern won at Wisconsin 13-7

Series:  Illinois leads the all-time series 55-48-5, while Northwestern has won six of the last 10 meetings. The Land of Lincoln Trophy series, introduced in 2009, is split 3-3. The trophy derives from the official state nickname of Illinois and depicts a bronce replica of a stovepipe hat famously worn by Abraham Lincoln.

Vegas betting line: Northwestern (-3.5); Over/under: 42

This week's links

Injury Report: Ke'Shawn Vaughn returns, Joe Spencer questionable

Illini seniors: Carrying even more weight into season finale

Illini interim AD wants decision on Cubit by Sunday

Werner's Whits: Uncertainty from uncertain leadership, Part II

VIDEO: Two-year deal for Cubit?

Fifth Quarter Podcast: 2 Years? Really?

Wes Lunt: Season of 'ups and downs'

Mason Monheim: Illini LB reflects on career, growing hair

Recruiting: Illini land commitment from Florida RB Devin Singletary

Werner's Whits: Can Cubit's staff recruit long-term?

Werner: Looking for light in dark Illini days

Notebook: Foster, Turner step up as playmakers

Number-crunching

  • 5: Number of seasons since 1903 that Northwestern has won nine or more games. Pat Fitzgerald was the coach of three of those teams and played on the two others.
  • 7: Receptions Illini RB Josh Ferguson (161 career catches) needs to pass A.J. Jenkins (167) for third all-time on the Illini career receptions list. Jason Dulick is second with 169 catches.
  • 12: Rushing yards Illini RB Josh Ferguson (2,546 rushing yards) needs to pass Juice Williams (2,557 yards) and Mikel LeShoure (2,557) for sole possession of sixth on the Illinois career rushing yards list. Rocky Harvey is fifth all-time with 2,711 yards.
  • 16.6: Points allowed per game by Northwestern, ninth in the FBS.
  • 20.4: Points per game average for Northwestern, last in the Big Ten.
  • 22: Catches during the last three weeks for Illini freshman WR Desmond Cain.
  • 23: Tackles needed by Illini LB Mason Monheim to pass J Leman for sixth on the Illini career tackles list
  • 98.8: Pass efficiency defense for Northwestern, fifth in the FBS.
  • 121.5: Rushing yards allowed per game by Northwestern, 18th in the FBS.
  • 124: Tackles for Illini senior safety Clayton Fejedelem, the top mark in the Big Ten.
  • 138.7: Passing yards per game for Northwestern, last in the Big Ten.
  • 192.3: Rushing yards per game for Northwestern, fourth in the Big Ten.
  • 331.0: Total yards of offense per game for Northwestern, last in the Big Ten.

Wildcats to watch

1. Clayton Thorson, QB: The redshirt freshman has been the X-factor for Northwestern this season. And while he hasn't carried the Wildcats, he hasn't crushed them either -- and that might be more important. Thorsen is a better runner (362 yards) than passer (52.0 completion percentage, 5.3 yards per pass attempt, 99.4 passer efficiency rating). He's thrown six interceptions this season and fumbled seven times, losing three.

2. Justin Jackson, RB: The 5-foot-11, 190-pound sophomore doesn't look it, but he's a bellcow back. He is third in the Big Ten with 1,172 rushing yards (4.6 per carry) though he has just three touchdowns. He has five games of 28 or more carries. He struggled in a midseason three-game stretch against Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska (95 yards, 2.6 ypc over the three games) but has 441 yards (5.1 ypc) over the past three games.

3. Dan Vitale, Superback: The 6-foot-2, 235-pound H-Back is the Wildcats' best lead blocker and top receiver (30 catches, 323 yards, 3 TDs) in a run-heavy offense.

4. Dean Lowry, DE: The 6-foot-6, 290-pound defensive end probably makes a bigger impact on the Northwestern defense than anyone. He is stout against the run, makes plays behind the line of scrimmage (13.5 TFLs 3.0 sacks) and gets his long arms up to knock down passes (seven pass breakups). 

5. Deonte Gibson, DE: The 6-foot-3, 265-pound senior captain is coming off a career game (4.0 TFLs and 3.0 sacks vs. Wisconsin) to earn Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors. He leads the Wildcats with 9.0 sacks and is 13th in the country in sacks per game.

6. Anthony Walker, LB: The 6-foot-1, 235-pound sophomore (99 tackles) has 35 more tackles than any Wildcat and leads Northwestern with 16.0 tackles for loss and three fumble recoveries.

7. Nick VanHoose, CB: The 6-foot, 190-pound senior has 43 career starts and is tied for the Wildcats lead with 11 pass breakups and three interceptions.

8. Solomon Vault, KR: The 5-foot-10, 190 pound sophomore leads the Big Ten in kick return average (28.2 yards) and has returned two for touchdowns.

Keys to the game

1. Sell out against the run: Northwestern passes the ball just 40.5 percent of the time (103rd of 128 FBS teams) and averages just 4.9 yards per pass (126th of 128 FBS teams). More than 66 percent of Northwestern's total yards come on the ground. In other words, the Wildcats are really reliant on the run. Thorson is inaccurate, so Illinois should commit to stopping the run with eight in the box.

2. Avoid second- and third-and-long: Too oftenIllinois drives inside the opponents' territory stall due to failures on first down. Illini quarterback Wes Lunt's completion percentage is great on third-and-short but way down on third and long. He has struggled -- and Illini receivers have struggled to get open -- on intermediate and deep routes lately.The run game (which has a huge task against Northwestern's front) and screen game will be important in allowing the Illini to earn manageable second and third downs to continue drives.

3. Win special teams: The Illini special teams have been atrocious lately. They are losing the battle of field position (punter Ryan Frain, the kickoff team and kickoff return teams are struggling). They allowed a big kick return to Minnesota that led to points. Against Ohio State, Illinois had a botched field goal hold that took points off the board, and V'Angelo Bentley muffed a punt return inside the 10 that led to a touchdown. Meanwhile, Northwestern has one of the most dangerous return men in the Big Ten in Solomon VaultWhile Illini kicker Taylor Zalewski, who has made 10 of his last 12 field goals, has been good, special teams has cost the Illini dearly lately. It can't on Saturday if the Illini want a win.

Illini in the spotlight

Offense

Ke'Shawn Vaughn, RB: The Illini freshman running back returns after missing most of the last two games with a concussion. Illinois has only had the use of its top two backs for about six quarters during Big Ten play. Vaughn's return this week will allow Cubit to use more of his best personnel packages, including Vaughn and senior Josh Ferguson on the field at the same time. Vaughn will give Ferguson some much-needed breathers and give Illinois a better redzone threat.

Geronimo Allison, WR: Through seven weeks, the Illini senior led the Big Ten with 48 receptions and 700 receiving yards. In four games since then, he has 12 receptions for 140 yards. Defenses have focused on keeping Allison out of the picture. But with the recent emergences of Desmond Cain and Malik Turner, Allison may find more opportunities. The Illini need their big-play, downfield threat to end the season with a bang.

Defense

Clayton Fejedelem, S: The Illini safety leads the Big Ten with 124 tackles (sixth in the FBS) and is like an extra linebacker in the box for Illinois. With Northwestern so reliant on the run, Fejedelem will be key in containing Justin Jackson a week after Minnesota's Shannon Brooks ran for 174 yards and three touchdowns against the Illini.

Senior Day

Saturday's game will mark the final regular season game for 21 Illini seniors: Geronimo Allison, V'Angelo Bentley, Chris Boles, Tim Clary, Clayton Fejedelem, Josh Ferguson, Eric Finney, Pat Flavin, Joe Fotu, Ted Karras, Davontay Kwaaning, Mason Monheim, Kenny Nelson, Jim Nudera, Chris O'Connor, Leslie Poole, Eaton Spence, Cameron Tucker, Jihad Ward, Sean White and Taylor Zalewski. They will all be recognized prior to the game at Soldier Field.

Prediction

Oh, yeah. There is an actual football game this weekend. And it's a big one. The uncertainty surrounding the future of the athletic director and head coach positions understandably have stolen the headlines this week. But the Illini can clinch bowl eligibility for the second straight season with a win over No. 16 Northwestern. It's a bigger task this season. The Wildcats, who were 5-6 entering last season's finale, are healthier and better. But how much better? Not as much as the record suggests. The Wildcats have won four straight by a combined 17 points. This a good Northwestern team with a great defense but a bad offense. That provides a window of opportunity for Illinois. Northwestern is playing for bowl positioning, while Illinois' seniors are playing for one more game (and possibly their coach's future?). But to win, the Illinois offense must buck the trend of struggling to punch the ball into the end zone. There's too much evidence during Big Ten play to think those struggles will end against a stout Northwestern defense.

Northwestern 20, Illinois 16


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