Keys To Victory: Illini Hope to Run to Win

Only one more challenge exists, in the regular season, that is. But it won't be an easy one. And nobody knows better than the Illini how difficult these season ending games against cross state rival Northwestern can be. And how much better the Wildcats are than your grandfathers' Northwestern teams. Leaving us with some keys to victory in what has become the most important game of the year.

1. SET THE TONE. That part should be easy. The crowd should be out of their minds. The seniors emotional yet excited and motivated. The underclassmen ready to perform in honor of their elder statesmen.

Best of all, this is the final home game and regular season game of a magical season most associated with the Illini don't want to see end. Which is the best reason that Illinois should be fired up out of the gate.

The biggest concern is to not be too keyed up, like the Illini were against Michigan. Being flat won't be a problem. Being too jacked could be. Stay under control. Play with fire, get an early lead. But play under control.

2. HOLD THE BALL. Northwestern's best chance is if the game becomes a track meet. Lots of passing, lots of possessions, etc. The Wildcats would welcome that. Illinois, thus, must run the ball and hold the ball.

Play the first quarter here like the fourth quarter against Ohio State. Pound the rock with a steady diet of Mendenhall and even a little Dufrene, establish 10 or more play drives. Make Northwestern inpatient.

3. HIT 'EM IN THE MOUTH. Yep, an overused football cliche, but one that is so appropriate here. Northwestern is pretty good, clearly the better finesse team of the two. Illinois is the blood and guts blue collar team.

Northwestern wants to spar, to stick and jab and dance and move. Illinois wants a street fight, drop the gloves and may the best man win. So the more physical, the better. Must send that message early.

4. COVER 'EM TIGHT. The Wildcats love the short passing game. They snap it quick, C. J. Bacher gets it out quick, receivers turn and catch it quick. Boom, boom, boom...first down.

So you may see a little more press coverage than in the past. The best part of the Illinois defense is the pass rush, but if Bacher has guys open quick, it will never be a factor. That is the Northwestern goal -- to keep the Illini defensive front from being a major factor.

5. DEAL WITH ADVERSITY. This shapes up as one of those game where something is going to go wrong. Two big rivals, both trying to improve their bowl status, one team has the better talent, the other has had their number, etc. That usually means somewhere along the line something bad will happen.

Fumble deep in Illinois territory. A dropped pass in the end zone. Fumbled punt. Penalty that keeps a drive alive.

How the Illini handle those advertisies -- and they will come -- will determine the outcome of the game. It also will speak to the overall emotional and mental growth of the program.

Got a hunch they handle it pretty well.

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