By Steven Goldstein (@StevenGoldfish)
Fresh off a 23-20 nail-biting win over Michigan State, Northwestern rounds out its regular season by hosting Illinois Saturday.
Sitting at a paltry 2-9 record and still winless in conference play, the Fighting Illini come in as the Wildcats' tamest Big Ten opponents. As this year's edition of the Land of Lincoln brawl looks increasingly one-sided, things are shaping up for an easy "senior day" at Ryan Field.
Junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has regressed in 2012, while Illinois has been outscored by an average of over 13 points a game this year. Despite hobbled Wildcats Kain Colter (ankle), Venric Mark (upper body) and Nick VanHoose (shoulder), Northwestern looks to notch its second nine-win season of the past decade.
A win on Saturday is a decisive step closer to the Outback Bowl, Northwestern's most prestigious potential bowl option. The 'Cats will also have to bank on shoddy performances from Wisconsin against Penn State this week, and then in the Big Ten title game next week, to claw in as the conference's No. 3 seeding option.
Check out a complete breakdown of Northwestern’s week 12 opponent, and see how the Wildcats can avoid a crucial trap game.
Players to watch
Offense: QB Nathan Scheelhaase
True, it's been a long season for Scheelhaase, but the dual-threat quarterback is still a player to watch out for come Saturday. Scheelhaase has the speed to reach the edge in a hurry, and against a porous Northwestern secondary, he could certainly open up the vertical pass.
Scheelhaase's four rushing touchdowns this year are a career low, but he's still a serious threat on the ground and can spread the field for Illinois' otherwise unimaginative offense. Against the Wildcats last year, Scheelhaase went for 391 passing yards and four total scores.
If Illinois is to pull off the upset Saturday, it will be through Scheelhaase's big play potential. With little to play for in this one, don't be surprised if Illinois passing coordinator Billy Gonzales dials up more options and deep plays to exploit Scheelhaase's flexibility under center. Sharing reps with sophomore Reilly O'Toole, Scheelhaase's equivalent to Trevor Siemian, could make for a respectable passing offense on Saturday.
Defense: DE Michael Buchanan
Buchanan was a preseason nominee for the Ted Hendricks Award, a distinction given to the country's best defensive end. While his 3.5 sacks this year have been a bit underwhelming, he could still cause problems on the outside and break the pocket for Northwestern quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian.
Illinois doesn't have much of a pass rush, but the Wildcats looked weak up front last week in East Lansing. Buchanan could also be disruptive for Northwestern's option run. With a forced fumble to his credit this year, the 'Cats can't afford to keep the Illini alive with turnovers.
Biggest strength: Rushing offense
While Illinois' ground game pales in comparison to their in-state rival's, the Fighting Illini boast five rushers with a yards-per-carry average of over four. Northwestern's done a good job containing the run this year, but the Illini find themselves with a diverse backfield to mix and match from Saturday.
Scheelhaase tops the team with four rushing touchdowns, while sophomore 'back Donovonn Young has nearly 500 yards on just 120 carries.
Biggest weakness: Red zone offense
Illinois ranks just 108th in FBS red zone conversion rate, a key factor in its dismal 2012 campaign. Despite a speedy quarterback under center, the Fighting Illini have failed to capitalize and finish drives with touchdowns. Northwestern ranks 40th in the nation in red zone defense.
Lacking a deep element, it could be a long afternoon for the Illini offense.
Under the radar: WR Ryan Lankford
Junior Ryan Lankford has flown under the radar in a hushed Illini offense, leading the team with five touchdown grabs. Lining up against senior corner Demetrius Dugar, Lankford could be slated for a huge Saturday.
While Lankford hasn't scored in five weeks, he'll likely see a healthy amount of targets in this one. Northwestern's early-game offensive success, coupled with its stingy run defense, means that Illinois will need to pass early and often. Don't be surprised if Scheelhaase tries Lankford downfield a few times in the first half.