Every Thursday 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.
This week, Eastern Illinois comes to Ryan Field. EIU — known for producing NFL quarterbacks Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo — is 0-1 so far in 2015, having lost 33-5 to Western Illinois last Thursday. So Saturday shouldn't be too treacherous for NU. But hey, there's a non-zero chance that the Wildcats slip up. So aside from the fact that Northwestern has more talent and depth at pretty much every single position than the Panthers do, here are the reasons NU will or won't win on Saturday.
Why Northwestern will lose to Eastern Illinois
1. EIU has a capable quarterback
Let's start off from the negative perspective. Although the Panthers are coming off a blowout loss to Western Illinois —which Northwestern beat 24-7 in 2014 — they have some talented skill-position players, namely quarterback Jalen Whitlow. Whitlow, a Kentucky transfer, threw three interceptions against WIU, but is a major running threat. Northwestern shut Stanford's Kevin Hogan down in Week 1, but he's not nearly as mobile as Whitlow, whose speed could present the Wildcats' defense with some problems. If he can limit his mistakes and get NU's defense out of step with his speed, the Panthers could have some success.
2. EIU also has D-1 talent at other skill positions
When you lose 33-5 to an FCS school in Western Illinois, there aren't many positives to say on either offense or defense. However, the Panthers have some versatile backs and receivers that could chew up yardage with ease. Devin Church, an Illinois transfer and former top recruit from Michigan, is a quick running back who has experience catching passes out of the backfield.Top receiver Isaiah Nelson, a JUCO transfer, caught three passes for 69 yards against WIU in Week 1. The Panthers obviously aren't loaded with elite athletes at every position, but if the offensive line can give Whitlow enough time to either run or get the ball to Church and Nelson, EIU could move the ball more effectively than Stanford did (though that's not saying much).
3. College football is really, really weird.
Usually not this weird though. So let's move onto the more realistic scenario...
Why Northwestern will beat Eastern Illinois
1. Northwestern's dominant defense
There is much more reason to be optimistic for Northwestern's chances on Saturday than there are to be pessimistic, and that all starts with the Wildcats' defense. Against an NFL prospect in Hogan and explosive running back Christian McCaffrey, Northwestern allowed just two field goals while forcing two turnovers. Many — including Desmond Howard and Mike Golic — thought the Cardinal were a potential Playoff team, and the Wildcats completely shut them down on offense. They should be able to do the same — and maybe pick off more passes or force more fumbles — against an EIU team that committed five turnovers against Western Illinois.
2. Clayton Thorson
Clayton Thorson looked a little shaky in his first college game — which is to be expected — but he managed to not turn the ball over, and managed the offense well enough for a win over a ranked opponent. Of course, a 42-yard touchdown run doesn't hurt either. So, it would make sense that against a lesser opponent, with a full game under his belt, Thorson will play a lot better against Eastern Illinois than he did against Stanford. That would mean crisper passes to his multiple targets, quicker reads of the defense, and possibly more quarterback runs when the situation calls for it. We know Thorson can run, so if he can throw the ball effectively down the field, this game might be over by halftime.
3. Justin Jackson
Jackson should be able to eat this EIU defense alive. He ran for 134 yards in NU's season-opening win, and was able to consistently find holes in a Stanford defense that had a lot of talent. Jackson was also able to do that his entire freshman season.
Eastern Illinois' run defense was actually pretty good against the Leathernecks, holding their cross-state rival to just 77 yards on 44 attempts (average of 1.8 yards per carry). But, Jackson is on a different level. Northwestern should control the line of scrimmage as well, and the threat of Jackson could also open things up for Thorson and the rest of the offense.