Contrary to popular belief, Northwestern will be playing a football game against Illinois this weekend rather than a competitive fedora-wearing contest. After yet another close victory on the road against Wisconsin, the 9-2 Wildcats play "on the road" at Soldier Field in Chicago against the 5-6 Fighting Illini. Illinois has lost five of its previous six games, but is still fighting for bowl eligibility this weekend. Northwestern is hoping to secure a victory and improve to 1-0 for the tenth time this season. A victory will help Northwestern’s bowl prospects for this improbably successful season thus far. However, Northwestern is favored by just 3.5 points against an Illinois team that has some dangerous individual players and can occasionally put up a good fight. And of course, the stakes will be high because the winner will take home the coveted "Monopoly Figurine Trophy".
With the rights to an awkwardly placed top HAT on a wooden pedestal on the line, here are three things to know about Illinois:
Illinois has an above-average defense, in theory
Illinois has some very good players on the defensive side of the ball and it, statistically, has an above-average defense. They are, amazingly, 15th in defensive S&P, a rating which does not make much sense considering the Illini just gave up 32 points to Minnesota and haven’t held an opponent under 24 points since Week 5. However, they did have a very good start to the season defensively and played decently within the Big Ten against Purdue and Nebraska. Defensive end Dawuane Smoot has seven sacks this season and will challenge Northwestern’s patchwork offensive line. They also have talent at safety in Clayton Fejedelem, who leads the Big Ten with 124 tackles, and at defensive tackle with top recruit Jihad Ward. Illinois also has a pair of excellent linebackers in senior Mason Monheim, who earned a Big Ten Honorable Mention in 2014, and T.J. Neal Jr., who is currently seventh in the Big Ten in tackles.
Illinois’ defense has above-average talent but has been exposed badly at times this season. Interim head coach Bill Cubit has not been able to consistently maximize his defense’s talent this year, and it looked like his gameplan against Minnesota was completely incorrect after giving up three long first-half touchdown drives. The Illinois run defense has been spectacularly poor the last two weeks as Ezekiel Elliott (181 yards, 2TDs) and Shannon Brooks (174 yards, 3 TDs) shredded Illinois’ porous run defense. Justin Jackson and Warren Long both excel at breaking long runs, and they have an ideal matchup this weekend. But Illinois is also 14th in pass defense S&P+, which is concerning for Northwestern’s nonexistent passing game. Clayton Thorson and the passing offense could be in for yet another rough day, as the experienced Illinois defense should have no trouble containing Northwestern’s underwhelming receiving corps. Mick McCall will likely want to pound Illinois with Jackson and Long, which could be enough to win with how well Northwestern's defense is playing.
Wes Lunt has been confusingly bad
Wes Lunt transferred to Illinois from Oklahoma State after 2012 and this is the redshirt junior’s first full season (due to health) at starting quarterback. Lunt has been quite inefficient this season, averaging just 5.2 yards per attempt, which has contributed to Illinois’ mediocre 99th-ranked offense. If you thought Northwestern’s passing offense was not explosive, Illinois’ awful numbers may console you as dreams of 60-yard bombs to Christian Jones disappear into oblivion. Although this may be a result of the offensive scheme, Illinois' offense is 117th in passing IsoPP. Don’t worry though, Northwestern comes in at 120th! Lunt has also been careful with the football, posting a solid 14:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and losing zero fumbles this season. However, his total passer rating is still just a mediocre 113.2, which ranks him 107th out of 127 qualified quarterbacks this season. Just to pound home the Big Ten’s poor quarterback play this season, Lunt is actually ahead of Thorson (116th), Purdue’s David Blough (112th), and Maryland’s Perry Hills (118th). Other Big Ten luminaries such as Joel Stave, Christian Hackenberg, and Chris Laviano are all below 85th.
Obviously, Lunt has not been the most dynamic quarterback in Illinois history, but he is capable of managing a lead and not turning the ball over. Other college football blogs would bluntly criticize Illinois’ meek passing offense, but here at Inside NU, that would be fairly hypocritical. Bill Cubit’s big-play offense from last season has not reemerged in 2015 and his strategy has appeared to be "keep throwing the ball, even if it isn’t working." Illinois is 113th in passing-down success rate even though it throws the ball considerably more than the average team. If you need another stat to convince you of Illinois’ inefficient passing offense, Lunt is 6th in the nation in total pass attempts and 112th in yards per attempt. Despite the inefficiencies, Lunt keeps his team in the hunt, at least when they’re not getting blown out by superior offenses, which has happened quite a lot this season.
Considering his poor stats, you’d think that Lunt was suffering from an extremely poor offensive line, but that just has not been the case this season. Lunt has actually had good pass protection this year, as his sack rate on passing downs is just 3.7 percent and his offensive line is 14th in adjusted sack rate. By comparison, Clayton Thorson has been dealing with a passing down sack rate of 5.3 percent (29th-highest) and the 70th-ranked offensive line by adjusted sack rate, which partly explains the failure of the passing game. For a quarterback who was heralded as a strong pocket passer, Lunt hasn’t been very effective. Some of the blame definitely has to go to Lunt’s receivers and the conservative gameplan that forces Lunt to throw against defenses that do not respect Illinois' rushing offense. Illinois' star running back Josh Ferguson has been in-and-out of the lineup with injuries, forcing Lunt to take a greater offensive role. While Lunt’s inefficiency can be partly explained by his heavy workload, Riley O’Toole, his co-starter from 2014, also had a high-volume passing offense and still managed 6.5 yards per attempt last season. Compared to the stronger Illini offense of last season, this team is a shadow of its former self offensively, and Lunt is one of the problems.
The coaching drama never ends
Bill Cubit’s job is probably on the line in this game. With AD Mike Thomas gone, the school may decide to just clean house and start over with an entirely new athletic administration. With the basketball team losing to teams like Chattanooga and Western Illinois and revelations about former coach Tim Beckman’s purple-hating and player endangering antics being brought to the media, you can’t blame Illinois for wanting to fire everybody in the athletic department. Cubit may not even be around next year even if Illinois upsets Northwestern and becomes bowl-eligible, and many Illinois supporters have vociferously demanded that Cubit be fired after their debacle against Minnesota last week.
"If Illinois extends Bill Cubit this winter, we're going to come closer to seeing a college football program reach absolute zero than ever before," wrote Mark Primiano of The Champaign Room, SBNation’s Illinois blog.
"No, nothing about hiring Cubit suggests to me help is on the way," wrote the Chicago Tribune’s David Haugh.
This game is Cubit’s last shot to prove that he can run a competitive football team. After losing five of their last six games in conference, Cubit and the Illini have to win this game if he wants any shot at remaining the head coach. Even if he wins the game, Illinois’ management may still fire him before he can finishing saying, "I won the hat." While the internal workings of Illinois would make for a pretty good television drama, Cubit could decide to pull out all the stops in a last-ditch effort to save his job. Alternatively, he may have already sensed he will be fired no matter what, leaving him no incentive to change the failed gameplans that have been woefully ineffective in the last month and a half.