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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Illinois

One is Chicago’s Big Ten team, and the other... Well, the other is Illinois.

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

Every week 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.

Northwestern (5-6, 4-4 B1G) play host to intrastate rival Illinois (3-8, 2-6 B1G) at Ryan Field this Saturday with its second consecutive opportunity to clinch a bowl berth. After falling in ugly fashion to Minnesota last weekend, the Wildcats face a slightly less intimidating opponent in the Illini this weekend. However, this doesn’t mean the visitors won’t pose some challenges for NU as they look to reach their second bowl game in as many years. Here are three reasons why Northwestern will or won’t win Saturday:

Why Northwestern will beat Illinois

1. Justin Jackson will set the tone

This scenario is a necessity if Northwestern wants to win this game and wants to win handily. And it’s easy to see it happening. Jackson is the second-leading rusher in the Big Ten running for a team with its season on the line going up against one of the worst run defenses in the conference with nothing to play for but pride. It thus seems reasonable to expect that Jackson will show up, Northwestern’s offensive line will show up and Illinois’ front seven won’t. If this all happens, NU should be able to ride Jackson to 6-6 and bowl eligibility.

2. Northwestern’s hobbled secondary will feast on Illinois’ impotent passing attack

While Northwestern’s secondary has had its ups and downs in the 2016 season, it goes without question that this has been the weakest unit on this football team. Much of that can be attributed to injuries, but the point stands. Luckily for the Wildcats, though, their opponent this weekend hasn’t had great success through their air to this point of the year. Illinois ranks last in the Big Ten (of every team that isn’t Rutgers) in scoring offense, total yards per game, passing yards per game and passing efficiency, which obviously bodes well for NU. Look for the secondary to play aggressive in trying to turn the tide of this game early if the offense can get off to a fast start.

3. It has to

It’s no secret that this is a must-win affair for Northwestern. Although bowl eligibility is mildly feasible even with a loss, the Wildcats simply must seize this opportunity to take their destiny into their own hands after letting one slip through their paws last weekend. It’s been a tumultuous season for Northwestern, but it has a chance this weekend to end it on a high note and salvage success out of a campaign that looked bleak just two weeks in. Pat Fitzgerald, the rest of the Northwestern coaching staff and the players all realize this, and should come out ready to thoroughly dominate the Illini on their home turf Saturday.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Illinois

1. The offensive line will struggle again

Northwestern’s success as an offense undoubtedly hinges on its three most important offensive players: Clayton Thorson, Jackson and Austin Carr. Further, the success of all three of them is directly proportional to the performance of the offensive line. In a game (against Minnesota last weekend) where Thorson was sacked seven times and Jackson could muster only 90 yards on the ground (short of his season average of 102.5), the Wildcat offense managed only 12 points and suffered an ugly loss. This is a unit that’s been great in spurts but overall inconsistent throughout the year, and if they don’t show up Saturday, Northwestern is going to have a near impossible time putting points on the scoreboard.

2. Illinois will start fast

Northwestern would be best served in this one to come out aggressive, jump in front early and spend most of this contest conserving/padding their advantage. The same goes for the Illini, but, obviously, this is easier said than done. The key for NU will be to avoid mistakes early in the game. Northwestern is clearly the better of the two teams and silly turnovers, breakdowns in coverage (both in the secondary or in the return game) will only level the playing field. If Illinois can get the Northwestern playing from behind, as its had to do all too often this season, the pressure of the game will play a larger factor than the Wildcats would probably like it to.

3. Illinois will thrive in its role as spoiler

On paper, there is no reason Northwestern shouldn’t run away with this one. Their season is on the line, they’re playing at home and they excel in many areas that Illinois has struggled to counter throughout this season. But if these past few months of college football have taught us anything, it’s that - sometimes - sh*t don’t make sense. If Illinois comes out and reverses every narrative, shuts down Jackson, moves the ball through the air, smothers Thorson and his weapons (you get the idea), it could be a long and frustrating afternoon for the Wildcats in Evanston Saturday.