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Northwestern vs. Illinois: Three matchups to watch

If Northwestern can win in the trenches, it should cruise to a victory and bowl berth Satuday.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Jackson vs. Illinois front seven

Justin Jackson vs. {insert team name here} front seven is a matchup to watch for Northwestern every week, and for good reason. This team, to a degree, goes as Jackson goes, and coming off an abysmal offensive performance in Minnesota last weekend, he’ll need to establish a rhythm early and often if Northwestern wants to secure a bowl berth on Saturday. For evidence of Jackson’s impact on Northwestern’s success - both offensively and as a team - look no further than his splits between wins and losses. In victories, JJ is averaging 134.8 yards (4.9 per carry) on the ground compared to 75.5 (4.1 per carry) in defeats and he carries the ball nearly ten times more per game in wins. Additionally, Illinois ranks in the bottom half of the Big Ten in rush yards allowed, surrendering 213.8 per contest. If Jackson is running efficiently and in high volume, expect success for Northwestern.

Clayton Thorson vs. Illinois defensive line

Illinois hasn’t boasted the most prolific pass rush in the 2016 campaign (23 sacks in 11 games, actually the same number as Northwestern), but the performance of NU’s offensive line week-to-week this season has been anything but linear. If the Wildcats get backed up in long down-and-distance scenarios and the Illini dial up their pass rush, keep an eye on how Clayton Thorson performs in the face of pressure. For as much progress as Thorson has made this season, he’s still mistake-prone and often anxious in the pocket. This matchup is truly going to be decided on the line, but the onus still falls on Thorson to not make mistakes in a game Northwestern should win handily.

Kendrick Foster vs. Northwestern front seven

It feels like we’re repeating themes here, but, again, there’s good reason. Neither of these teams sports (consistently) dynamic passing attacks, so it’s reasonable to expect that much of this contest will be played on the ground. While Northwestern’s front seven (and defense as a whole) was fairly steady throughout the team’s 29-12 loss to Minnesota, an inability to set the edge on outside runs in key moments (i.e. the first drive of the game) cost the Wildcats in a big way Saturday. Kendrick Foster, Illinois’ leading rusher, has been a bright spot in a bleak campaign for the Illini; in his junior year he’s rushed for 721 yards (5.8 per carry) and seven touchdowns, including a 146 yard, two touchdown performance against Michigan State three weeks ago. If Northwestern can prevent him from breaking out in similar fashion this weekend, it’ll go a long way towards stifling Illinois’ offense as a whole.