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Northwestern vs. Illinois preview: Three matchups to watch

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Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Gameday is just a few days away. So with Saturday looming, it's time to start digging a little deeper into the intricacies of the contest. Football, at its core, is a game of individual matchups that all work together to form one play. All individual showdowns are crucial. But there are still some that are more important and influential than others. Let's look at the three matchups that may decide who gets the HAT.

1. Northwestern's red zone offense vs. Illinois' red zone defense

Northwestern's biggest struggles this season have been on the offensive side of the ball. That much is clear. But within that phase of the game, Clayton Thorson and co. have stalled far too often inside the red zone, settling for field goals rather than punching in touchdowns.

Illinois' defense, ranked No. 15 in defensive S&P+ according to SB Nation's Bill Connelly, has been pretty good inside its own 40-yard line. The Illini defense ranks 32nd in "finishing drives," which is basically points per opponent trip inside the 40-yard line. Northwestern's offense, in that category, is brutal. The Wildcats average under four points per trip inside their opponents 40, good enough for 115th in the nation.

Advantage: Illinois

2. Northwestern's rush defense vs. Josh Ferguson

Illinois has some really good players at key positions and one of them is running back Josh Ferguson. A local product out of Joliet Catholic, Ferguson is an explosive athlete at just 5-foot-10. He has averaged just under six yards per carry this season but missed three games in the middle of the year with injury. Last season against Northwestern, Ferguson totaled just 13 touches (rushing and receiving), but racked up 104 yards.

But Northwestern's defense seems to be up for the challenge. The Wildcats boast the 22nd-best rushing defense in the country according to S&P+, and are coming off an outstanding performance against Wisconsin. In all three levels of the defense, Northwestern is clued in. On the line, the Wildcats didn't allow Wisconsin to get any push, and the linebackers stayed in their holes and made tackles. In the secondary, Matt Harris and Nick VanHoose kept contain on the outside and Godwin Igwebuike was flying around from his safety spot.

Advantage: Northwestern

Justin Jackson vs. Illinois' rush defense

If you take another look at that advanced stats profile, you might be surprised to see Northwestern ranked 91 in rushing S&P+. Basically, that's a measure of efficiency and because Northwestern is so one-dimensional on offense, it decreases that efficiency. Regardless, sophomore running back Justin Jackson is on a tear. After struggling for three-straight games against Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska, Jackson has eclipsed 100 yards in each of the three games since. He's averaged almost 150 yards per game against Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin. Last season, Jackson ran over the Illini to the tune of 176 total yards.

Now, Illinois rush defense isn't awful. But in the last two weeks, Illinois has allowed Minnesota's Shannon Brooks and Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott to run for 174 yards and 181 yards, respectively. The Minnesota game last week is much more indicative of what might happen against Northwestern than Ohio State as the Gophers, like the Wildcats, have a run-heavy offense. Illinois knew the run was coming and still couldn't stop it. The same could happen against Northwestern.

Advantage: Northwestern