Every Thursday or Friday during football season, we'll be presenting reasons why Northwestern will or won't come away from its Saturday game victorious. It's not so much an argument for or against either result as it is envisioning the scenarios in which the Wildcats come away from the game with a win or a loss.
It’s Hat Week! Tomorrow, Northwestern heads to Soldier Field to face a 5-6 Illinois team that is hoping to secure bowl eligibility. Northwestern has won four straight games and hopes to improve its current bowl situation with a victory against its rival. Illinois has lost five of its last six games and has struggled against good teams, but the Illini always seem to show up for the annual rivalry game.
With the stakes high, here are three reasons why the Wildcats take home the Hat and three reasons why they won’t:
Why Northwestern will beat Illinois
1. Northwestern's pass defense shuts down Wes Lunt
By every metric, Illinois has been poor offensively this season. They have scored the fewest points in the Big Ten, and they are ranked poorly by ESPN’s FPI (81st) and S&P+ (98th). Wes Lunt has been inefficient as a passer and the offense has been nowhere near the production of previous iterations of the Illini. Northwestern has been able to win games by dominating teams on defense all season, and the Illinois offense is rated significantly worse than Wisconsin's or Penn State's. Illinois’ skill position players just haven’t been able to generate enough big plays, and while Lunt has avoided turnovers, his yards per attempt and passer rating have both been mediocre. Matt Harris, Nick VanHoose, and Godwin Igwebuike can all play lock down pass coverage at times, and Illinois’ passing game could have another rough afternoon.
2. Northwestern’s defensive front dominates Illinois' offensive line
Last week was the best game Northwestern’s pass rushers have had in a very long time, piling up six sacks against Wisconsin’s embattled offensive line. Northwestern’s defense is truly terrifying once the pass rush gets going, as it makes the secondary’s job much easier. If Northwestern can get to Wes Lunt or Illinois’ running backs behind the line of scrimmage on a consistent basis, it’s hard to see Illinois’ ineffective offense doing much better than Wisconsin last week. Illinois’ offensive line has played reasonably well this season, ranking 14th in adjusted sack rate, but they gave up four sacks against a good Penn State pass rush and Wes Lunt completed just 38.6 percent of his 44 passes. Oh yeah, and Illinois was shut out. ESPN recently ranked Big Ten quarterbacks against the blitz, and West Lunt was 10th out of 16 ranked QBs with a QBR under 50. By comparison, Joel Stave was the worst quarterback on that list and Northwestern’s defensive front knocked him out of the game. If Northwestern’s pass rush can get anything going, Illinois will be in huge trouble.
3. Illinois’ defense can’t stop Northwestern’s rushing attack
For some reason, Illinois’ defense is overrated by S&P+, coming in at 16th. The Illini defense, however, played much better at the beginning of the season than during recent weeks, and still is the 66th-ranked rushing defense, per S&P+, which is not very impressive. Illinois has not limited a team’s lead running back to under 4 yards per carry since Week 7, and they were completely shredded by Shannon Brooks and Ezekiel Elliott. Expect Mike McCall to take advantage of this and go extremely run-heavy. If Illinois can’t contain Justin Jackson and Warren Long, Northwestern’s offense could perform quite well. Clayton Thorson could also take advantage of Illinois’ weaknesses. J.T. Barrett ran 16 times for 74 yards and a touchdown, against Illinois, and Thorson could achieve similar results this weekend. If Illinois’ run defense falls apart early, Illinois could find themselves behind against Northwestern’s formidable defense. Just ask Joel Stave how that went last week.
Why Northwestern will lose to Illinois
1. Northwestern makes unnecessary mistakes on offense and special teams
Yes, I realize that "making unnecessary mistakes" is a glaringly obvious reason why teams lose football games. But for Northwestern, making unnecessary mistakes can be absolutely catastrophic. With the passing offense struggling, Northwestern simply can’t afford to go down by two possessions due to poor special teams coverage or a bad turnover. The main reason Northwestern won last week was because it won the turnover battle, and it will have to do so again as long as the offense continues to look anemic. Illinois’ pass defense is competent, and if it can force the Wildcats to abandon the running game by scoring 10 points on a turnover and a punt return, for example, Northwestern is in serious trouble. Also, Jack Mitchell has to stop missing field goals. Northwestern fans are already stressed out enough Jack Mitchell! Finals are next week! Please, don’t miss any more 27-yard field goal tries!
2. Josh Ferguson haunts Northwestern yet again
Here are Josh Ferguson's career numbers against Northwestern: 29 attempts, 215 rushing yards, 7.4 yards per carry, 4 TDs, 5 catches, 63 receiving yards.
Yeah, this guy seems to love playing against Northwestern. Maybe ex-coach Tim Beckman's motivational tactics really worked for Ferguson, because he usually has his best game of the season against his purple-clad archenemies from the north. It would be fitting for Ferguson to have one last great game against Northwestern to close out his college career. To be fair, Northwestern's run defense is way better than the last two seasons, but considering Ferguson is an NFL-ready talent, you never know what could happen.
Ferguson needs to have a good day to supplement Illinois' pass-heavy offense, and probably needs to be a significant part of that pass-heavy offense too. If he does, Illinois certainly has a shot to win.
3. Thorson and the offensive line sputter again
Clayton Thorson and the offense have to show some signs of life. Remember, Thorson was temporarily benched just two weeks ago for his poor performance against a bad Purdue team, only to return after two ill-fated Zack Oliver drives. Thorson hasn’t had a respectable offensive performance since the win over Nebraska, and that performance is starting to look like an aberration. While Thorson has had to deal with injuries to the offensive line and a lack of good wideouts, plus his own injury against Penn State, if the offense continues to be completely inept, Northwestern could easily lose.
Last week, the offensive line was unimpressive, allowing one sack but giving up four quarterback hits and seven tackles for loss. Jackson was able to gain yardage, but it was often in spite of the offensive line’s efforts rather than because of them. Thorson was pressured all day and had little time to realize that none of his wide receivers were open, leading to a disappointing offensive day for Northwestern. Illinois' pass rush is competent, and Northwestern’s offensive line has to play better if the Wildcats expect to win the game. Hopefully with no major injuries, the line improves as they practice together for another week. If not, the Northwestern offense could cost NU the game.