1. The Fighting Illini cannot stop the run.
Illinois ranks 117th in rush defense S&P+ and don’t have a defensive lineman among its top six tacklers (which features two linebackers and three defensive backs). The Illini have surrendered over 200 yards on the ground to six of their eight Big Ten opponents so far (even Purdue went over 200 yards), and the two teams that didn’t go over 200, Minnesota and Michigan State, both went over 170. It’s been an absolutely dismal year for the Illini front seven, and Northwestern should be able to impose itself in that area after getting thoroughly beaten in that area in two of the past three contests. Expect a big, big day from Justin Jackson and maybe John Moten IV as well.
2. The Illini are behind the chains way too often, and they’re rarely successful from there.
Illinois ranks 113th in success rate, with success rate being percent of plays that qualify as “successful” by Football Outsiders (50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.). That putrid mark is especially damaging when the Illini rank 103rd on passing down S&P+ (essentially when the team is behind the chains — 2nd and 8+, 3rd/4th and 5+). So a major key for the Wildcats will be keeping the Illini behind the chains and not allowing a trio of pretty good running backs to allow the visitors to establish any semblance of offensive balance.
3. Though the Illini are bad, they can be explosive
Lovie Smith’s team is 119th in offensive S&P+ overall, but its 61st in Isolated Points per Play+, a category that loosely measures explosiveness. That’s the biggest difference between the two categories in the nation. Kendrick Foster, Reggie Corbin and KeShawn Vaughn form a fantastic trio in the backfield, and each averages greater than five yards per carry, led by Corbin’s team-best 7.0 yards per carry. That’s the main source of explosiveness, as none of the receivers average more than 15 yards per catch. Leading receiver Malik Turner has had a couple big plays, though no one else has done much down the field.