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Opponent Q&A: Previewing Northwestern-Illinois with Jim Vainisi of The Champaign Room

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Every week during football season, we'll be reaching out to opponent SB Nation sites or opponent beat writers to give readers another perspective on Saturday's upcoming game.

This week, Northwestern heads to down to Soldier Field in Chicago to take on rival Illinois. The Illini have a bowl berth at stake and Northwestern, at 9-2, still has a shot at a New Year's Six Bowl. Jim Vainisi of The Champaign Room gives his takes on the upcoming game:

INU: With all that's gone on this year with the University of Illinois, Bill Cubit's done a pretty good job getting this team to the brink of bowl eligibility, and Pat Fitzgerald said that he was impressed by how Cubit rallied his troops after a horribly bad start to the year. What are your feelings on Cubit and does he have a future with the Illini?

Jim Vainisi: Look, Bill Cubit has been a great representative for Illinois in the aftermath of the Tim Beckman debacle, and he's done a really good job this season with all things considered, but he absolutely should not be extended. I can continue to go on and on about all the reasons why exactly that's the case, but this piece by Mark Primiano sums up my feelings pretty well.

The problem is that Illinois' administration is currently a complete disaster so there really isn't anyone in place to make this decision. The lack of a permanent Chancellor and Athletic Director means we have individuals without any real experience trying to plot the future of the football program. We do finally have a timeframe, though, as interim AD Paul Kowalczyk announced a decision would be coming on Sunday.

There are already rumors that Illinois is considering offering Cubit a two-year deal, which, you know, is pretty much the equivalent of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at this point.

INU: Having said that, Illinois has lost five of its last six -- some close and others not -- and two straight. What's gone wrong for this team over the latter half of the season?

JV: The biggest problem for Illinois is the offense. It's terrible -- like catastrophically bad. The group is currently ranked No. 99 in the latest S&P+ numbers and their recent performances have spoiled several great defensive efforts. Of course, Illinois has been without two starting wide receivers -- Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee -- for the entire season, but what we've seen has been simply inexcusable.

Bill Cubit's play calling, in-game adjustments, and just overall game management haven't exactly helped Illinois, either.

INU: Josh Ferguson is the leading rusher on the year, but it seems like Ke'Shawn Vaughn has done pretty well in his place during conference play as Ferguson has dealt with injuries. What are the strengths of each, and who else should Northwestern fans watch out for when Illinois has the ball?

JV: When healthy (and it appears he's back to around 100%), Josh Ferguson is one of the most underrated playmakers in the country. The Illini will line him up in multiple places and utilize outside runs and short passes in an effort to get him in open space. Ke'Shawn Vaughn, on the other hand, is more of the ‘bruiser' back. That's not to say he isn't good at some of the things Ferguson does, but he just tends to run up the middle more often.

Besides Wes Lunt, the only other Illinois player you'll need to look out for on offense is wide receiver Geronimo Allison. The senior is Lunt's No. 1 target on the outside, and he's one of the conference's leading pass catchers with 60 receptions for 840 yards and 3 touchdowns. His performance this year has probably put him on the NFL radar.

INU: Illinois' offensive front has been pretty good protecting Wes Lunt this year, allowing less than two sacks per game. Northwestern, meanwhile, collected six sacks against Wisconsin last week. Who has the advantage in the trenches?

Illinois' offensive line makes up for their run blocking struggles with very good pass protection. I don't mean to take anything away from the unit's performance, but part of that is because Wes Lunt usually gets rid of the ball very quickly so defenses have fewer opportunities to apply pressure.

I'm going to give the nod to Northwestern here because I suspect the Illini will be playing from behind quite a bit on Saturday -- and that means more passing because Cubit will inevitably abandon the run game. The key for the Wildcats will be to apply pressure from the outside because Lunt almost never steps up in the pocket; they'll be in business if they can consistently take away his rollout lanes.

INU: Illinois' defense ranks 16th in S&P+ despite giving up a decent amount of points. Who are some standouts on the defensive side of the ball?

In my opinion, Illinois' defense has been one of the biggest surprise in all of college football. They've definitely given up quite a few points, but a lot of that stems from the offense's complete inability to put drives together on a consistent basis.

Run-stuffing defensive end Jihad Ward is a future NFL draft pick and he headlines a very strong defensive line along with Dawuane Smoot (7.0 sacks on the year). At the next level, four-year starting linebacker Mason Monheim is one of the best tacklers in the Big Ten. But Illinois' best defender has been senior safety Clayton Fejedelem; this unlikely hero was a former NAIA walk-on and he's recorded 100 tackles and 2 interceptions this year. He is in the middle of seemingly EVERY play.

INU: How much of an actual rivalry is this game viewed as in Champaign?

This rivalry certainly isn't Ohio State vs. Michigan by any means, but I think it's developed nicely over the past few years because I've been seeing a lot more Northwestern #hate. There are, however, still plenty of Illinois fans dismissing Northwestern in favor of grudges against Iowa, Indiana, and Wisconsin.

I personally just view this as another game, but I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a little #hate starting to brew deep down.

INU: What's your prediction for Saturday and why?

The over/under for this game is 41 points. Should be fun, right? These two woefully bad offenses will go back and forth, but in the end I think Northwestern's defense will put their offensive counterparts in better positions to score.

Northwestern 20, Illinois 9