The game Saturday is nearly the opposite mirror image of last year's finale. Looking back, Northwestern had already won six games but needed a seventh to assure a bowl. Illinois had eight wins and needed a ninth to visit the Rose Bowl. Illinois got its way with the win while shattering Wildcat dreams. Now, the situation is reversed.
NU aspires payback for last year and to prevent the Illini from achieving two consecutive bowl bids while seeking a major bowl for themselves. They are led by a strong senior class, and they are a confident team that believes it can pull out close games against strong opponents. That is a far better mental state than feeling the pressure of needing to win a road game just for a chance at a possible bowl bid.
Add in the large number of Illinois players on Northwestern's roster who like nothing better than beating their big brothers in Champaign, and NU should be favored despite disagreement from some odds makers. They are an intelligent, well-coached team that makes few mistakes.
Illini senior defensive end Will Davis knows alot about the Wildcat offense.
"They use the quarterback as a running back a lot. They had (running back Tyrell) Sutton go down for the year, so they're generating alot from their quarterback. They're a three step drop team. They're not really trying to kill you with the pass but more than likely trying to keep the game moving to set up their run. They try to spread you out and then run the ball.
"Like Minnesota, they'll run the ball and dink you to try to catch you off balance for that big play. Coach Zook says all the time, there's about 5 or 6 plays that make a game. You don't know who's gonna get those 5 or 6 plays. They try to set you up so they can get those plays and catch you sleeping. Everything that Northwestern shows is something that we've seen.
"The Big Ten is all about running. And that's what they'll try to do all day if you let them. We have to go out there and stop the run so you get their offense out of its comfort zone. If that happens, they go to 5 step drops to try to get some deep passes, which is not their style. The Big Ten is all about trying to get your opponent to do things they're not comfortable doing."
Coach Ron Zook sees similarities between Northwestern's offense and Minnesota's. Quarterback C. J. Bacher is about as accurate as Gopher qb Adam Weber, and he has two Eric Decker clones in receivers Ross Lane and Eric Peterman.
"They do basically the things they did last year even though it's a different coordinator. If you want to compare, their offense is probably like Minnesota. Their running back's bumbed up a little bit, but their quarterback's back. They do the same things as Minnesota and do a heck of a job with it."
Middle linebacker Brit Miller, also playing his last game as an Illini, says the Illini have been studying Minnesota game tape in addition to NU.
"We're looking at what beat us against Minnesota. There's a couple plays we make sure we see every week that Minnesota scored on because people like to duplicate things like that. College coaches are some of the biggest copycats there are. They go with what works, and that's a smart thing to do.
"I'm sure we'll see the plays that beat us against Minnesota. Hopefully, we'll be in a different call. Hopefully, we've been coached up enough we will stop them. This late in the season, it's just a matter of going out and executing. Northwestern has smart ball players. We've gotta go play ball.
"We pride ourselves on stopping the run. We didn't get it done last week, and that's gonna be an emphasis this week. If we stop the run, we've got a chance."
Northwestern's defense is no slouch either. Playing bend, don't break, they have held opponents close enough for the NU offense to outscore them. They are especially tough in the fourth quarter, demonstrating discipline and good conditioning. Illini quarterback Juice Williams knows it will be a hard-fought game.
"Northwestern is the type of team that will come out and play hard. We got the W last year, but the score didn't indicate the type of game it was. They are a hard-hitting team, and they're gonna really bring it every play. They have something to play for.
"Northwestern is our instate rival, and it's one of the games you expect a battle. We need to prepare for it."
Williams knows several of the Wildcat players. And as someone completing three years as a starting quarterback, he has a broad perspective on the long-term significance of college football competition.
"It's fun to play against guys you know. You can sit back afterwards and talk about the game. That's one of the things you always cherish to the end of time. You have to go out there and have fun while it lasts."
Juice has sometimes in the past placed too much pressure on himself to perform great for Chicago area fans. He doesn't feel that is an issue any longer.
"The only pressure I had my freshman year (at Evanston) was trying to be great right away. Now, I understand it was a process I had to go through. I had to accept that. Once I got that through my mind, it made it a lot easier. Now, I just let the game come to me."
Coach Zook remains baffled about Illinois' inconsistent performance on the field after watching consistently good practices throughout the season. But he still believes he has a good team, one that can win on any given day.
"Practice has not been an issue. It's been good and crisp. It's the way it should be. The guys understand what's at stake and what we have to do. We have to play through Saturday now."