by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
In the final game of the regular season, Northwestern hopes to go into its pre-Bowl rest period on a positive note by notching its first win in the Land of Lincoln Rivalry since 2009. The Wildcats are a heavy favorite against the transitioning Illini, who haven’t won a game since beating Colorado State on September 15. Here’s a breakdown of the three phases of the game with a guess at how NU will try and match the Illini in each respect.
When Northwestern Has the Ball…
If Northwestern has its druthers, it will smash Illinois at the line of scrimmage and burn the Big Ten’s 10th-ranked rushing defense (4.45 yards per attempt) with Kain Colter, Venric Mark and Mike Trumpy controlling the game clock and keeping the Illini D on the field as long as possible. Both Mark and Colter should be good to go after leaving the Michigan State game with injuries last week, so you can expect plenty of zone-read looks and along with other various running formations.
If the Illini can manage to slow down Northwestern’s run game, the Wildcats have every confidence that Trevor Siemian, who appears to have overcome his midseason struggles, can advance the offense through the air. Arguably the two best players on Illinois’ defense this season, Ashante Williams and Terry Hawthorne, reside in the secondary, but it’s not like Siemian hasn’t seen capable pass defenses before. Take last week, when Siemian submitted a solid 13-of-23 performance against the Spartans’ vaunted unit. If Siemian can do that against Michigan State, Illinois’ secondary will offer no huge challenge.
There’s little to suggest Illinois is not the worst team in the Big Ten. For a team that entered with a decent amount of talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball, things have spiraled downward in ways no one could have predicted, even in a coaching transition year. The likelihood Illinois can turn things around and shut down a steadily improving offense in Northwestern is highly unlikely.
When Illinois Has the Ball…
The biggest problem for Illinois’ offense this season, which ranks last in the Big Ten at 4.41 yards per play and 301.6 yards per game, has been the offensive line. Pass protection for quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has been nothing short of dreadful, and the dual-threat QB – who, in tandem with A.J. Jenkins, gave Northwestern’s secondary all kinds of headaches in Champaign last season – has struggled to pick up new coach Tim Beckman’s offense. This is a group in disarray, from the line to the receivers to the running backs to the coaching, and on down the line. This offense simply doesn’t have weapons to keep up with Northwestern’s.
That said, given the way the Illini attacked NU last season, I fully expect Beckman to unleash Scheelhaase in the passing game. Not only are the Illini totally inept at running the ball, but if there’s one area where NU remains vulnerable – though marginally improved from last season – it’s the secondary. The only chance Illinois has of keeping this one close is by advancing the ball through the air. They can’t run it – we know this. So in the last game of the season, with expectations completely bottomed out and absolutely nothing to lose, it wouldn’t shock me if Illinois draws up a carefree, pass-heavy gameplan to challenge NU’s one perceived weak spot. A conservative gameplan will do the Illini no good in this setting. They need a bold strategic flair in the gameplan to have any chance of pulling the upset. And what better way to test Northwestern than by attacking its young secondary?
If Illinois goes after NU's pass defense, the Wildcats should be up to task. After seeing what Scheelhaase, when protected and motivated, is capable of in last season's game, coordinator Mike Hankwitz will have the secondary prepared for whatever Beckman rolls out.
Resident NU football twitter savant @NUHighlights provided an interesting note yesterday regarding Venric Mark. With just two punt returns needed to meet minimum standards of qualification for national statistical rankings, Mark holds a 3.5-average yards per return lead over the No. 2-ranked player in that category, Oregon’s DeAnthony Thomas. If you would have told me entering this season that Mark would hold a convincing lead over Thomas – the Ducks’ electric scatback and return specialist – in kick return yardage heading into rivalry week, I would’ve had no qualms laying money against your claim. Good thing I didn’t make any financial promises, because Mark, as coach Pat Fitzgerald reminded us so many times over the offseason, is making a strong case that he’s best punt returner in the land. Two more games, and it’ll be official. For our sake, let’s hope Mark breaks off another return touchdown – the explosiveness he brings to the special teams game is unlike anything Northwestern has had under Fitzgerald.
I ignored Illinois’ special teams because that nugget about Mark felt like a better use of this space. Out of obligation: Illinois ranks second in average punt distance at 41.90 yards per pop. That’s not going to deter Mark one bit.
Northwestern 27, Illinois 10 – Winning this game would require Illinois to shed this season’s performance to date, do a complete 180 on both sides of the ball, and somehow muster insane levels of motivation and pride to play above itself for four quarters. That scenario could play out as designed, but if it does, I won’t say I told you so, because I didn’t – Illinois is an Auburn-level tirefire (though I think Beckman may have an edge over Gene Chizik in the job security department) and, even with emotional stakes raised, I don’t foresee a massive change in the way the Illini have conducted themselves to this point. This is a lost football team, and no measure of state pride will change that enough to alter the outcome of this football game. Northwestern will dominate this installation of the Land of Lincoln Rivalry, and the scoreboard will reflect as much.