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Northwestern continues to "dominate" Illinois on the recruiting trail

Pat Fitzgerald only pulled two recruits from the state of Illinois in 2016, but the Wildcats still beat the Illini when the two programs went head-to-head.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, a grand total of zero recruits from the state of Illinois chose the Fighting Illini over Northwestern when both schools offered scholarships to said player.

Former Illinois coach Tim Beckman, who was fired right before the start of the 2015 season on the heels of a player abuse scandal, often cited his team's recruiting advantage in the state and in the greater Chicagoland area over Pat Fitzgerald's during his time in Champaign. In 2014, he claimed dominance based on the fact that his class included four Chicagoland commits to Northwestern's three.

But, as Rodger Sherman so eloquently wrote...

In actuality, Northwestern kicked Illinois' ass in recruiting. The Wildcats offered scholarships to eight players from Illinois, including the top-rated QB, Clayton Thorson, and the top-rated RB, Justin Jackson. Illinois offered scholarships to 30 players from Illinois, also including Thorson and Jackson. Northwestern got four commitments out of eight offers, including Thorson and Jackson, as well as Illinois target Blake Hance. Illinois got five commitments out of 30 offers. None of those five had been offered by Northwestern.

It is true that in 2016, Northwestern's class did not heavily feature in-state players. According to 247 Sports, of the top 50 players in the state for the Class of 2016, only seven committed to either Illinois or Northwestern (five to the Illini, two to the Wildcats). Western Michigan and Syracuse also got two of the state's top 50 recruits. On the surface, that's not good. It would seem that both programs are losing ground to fellow Big Ten schools such as Iowa and Michigan State, as well as other non-Midwest schools, like Oklahoma and Ole Miss.

Below is a breakdown of where the state's Top 50 recruits in the class committed. It does not paint a pretty picture for both programs, especially Northwestern:

This doesn't necessarily mean that Northwestern's in-state recruiting efforts have stagnated though. For one, Illinois isn't exactly a high school football hotbed. But more importantly, Fitzgerald and Northwestern have a limited pool from which to recruit. Due to admissions requirements, there are many players that programs like Illinois, Michigan State and Ole Miss can target that Northwestern can't.

"I think we're a dominant recruiting power locally for [the players] who fit our program," Fitzgerald said at his Signing Day press conference.

And the data, to some extent, back up his claim. Of the top 50 players in Illinois, Northwestern offered scholarships to just seven of them. The Wildcats got two (Eric Eshoo and Riley Lees), and lost out on the other five to Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Iowa and Connecticut. So there was really only one in-state player (Quayvon Skanes, who chose Connecticut over NU) that Northwestern wanted, and probably should have gotten, but didn't get. And it got Eshoo over Illinois and Lees over Iowa.

Fitzgerald's claim is also especially true when comparing the recruiting efforts of Northwestern and Illinois.

Overall, Northwestern's class of 2016 is No. 51 nationally, per 247, while Illinois sits at No. 71, below traditional powerhouses such as Marshall and Western Michigan. That puts the Wildcats at 10th in the Big Ten and the Illini at 12th.

The best way to evaluate the recruiting competition between the two schools is not by looking at overarching statistics though; it's by looking at the players that both schools offered — the players that 'fit both programs.' There are a lot of players that "fit" at Illinois, but not at Northwestern.

According to 247, Northwestern and Illinois offered scholarships to 45 of the same class-of-2016 players. Of those 45, 38 committed to out-of-state schools, six committed to Northwestern, and one committed to Illinois. That's significant.

Here are the seven players with offers from both schools who decided to play at either Illinois or Northwestern, ordered by 247 composite score:

Player Stars 247 Composite Score Position
Hometown School
Roderick Campbell Jr. 3 .8677 CB St. Louis, MO Northwestern
Cameron Kolwich 3 .8529 OG West Bloomfield, MI Northwestern
Nik Urban 3 .8522 OG Willoughby, OH Northwestern
Jake Saunders 3 .8467 DT Loveland, OH Northwestern
Jesse Meyler 3 .8464 OT Alexandria, VA Northwestern
Eric Eshoo 3 .8450 TE Wilmette, IL Northwestern
Tymir Oliver 3 .8322 DE Philadelphia, PA Illinois

It's also significant because it's the continuation of a trend. Since 2012, of the players that both schools offered that chose either the Wildcats or the Illini, 92 percent (24 out of 26) have picked Northwestern (as of a week ago).

Part of the reason for Northwestern's success in the head-to-head battle is that Illinois' program is a mess. It's currently led by a head coach that's effectively on a one-year contract, and its recruiting is suffering as a result. Northwestern's overall recruiting efforts, on the other hand, have been trending upward. And after a 10-win season, there's no reason to expect the Wildcats' besting of Illinois on the recruiting trail to slow down.