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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Illinois State

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The Wildcats need this one.

Western Michigan v Northwestern Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

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 Northwestern faces the Illinois State Redbirds. Brock Spack’s team reached the quarterfinals of the FCS Tournament last season. The team finished 9-2 and earned a share of the Missouri Valley title.

Why Northwestern will lose to Illinois State

1. The Northwestern defense continues to struggle against the run

Last week, Northwestern’s run defense look sluggish and discombobulated against Western Michigan. If a similar performance occurs against Illinois State, Northwestern could be in trouble. Illinois State does not have the talent to outplay Northwestern, but from what we have seen, Northwestern could still manage to self-destruct somehow. Anthony Walker and the entire run defense need to have a bounceback game for confidence purposes. If they don’t, things could get dicey. Northwestern allowed 198 rushing yards last week. Illinois State’s main strength is running the ball, even with the departure of star back Marshaun Coprich. The run defense must improve if Northwestern will take care of business.

2. The team comes out flat

It’s extremely hard to envision this being the case, especially after last week’s loss, but if the team comes out flat and allows Illinois State to hang around, not only will that give the Redbirds hope, but it will allow them to continue to run the ball as well, a big part of their gameplan. This is probably the easiest way for Northwestern to lose—not come out and assert its size, depth and overall talent advantages and play sloppily early.

3. The offensive improvement turns out to be short-lived

The offense looked better last week, but it must continue to show signs of improvement and balance this week. While Illinois State is a step down from Western Michigan defensively, the Redbirds have a stingy run defense which could slow down Justin Jackson. This is, I’ll admit, an unlikely scenario, but if the running game stalls, the game will come down to Thorson, which hasn’t gone well in the past.

Why Northwestern will beat Illinois State

1. Northwestern has more size and depth

To put it simply, Northwestern is still an FBS team. Even though Illinois State is a good FCS team, Northwestern’s overwhelming recruiting advantage supplies the Wildcats with bigger, stronger and simply better players. Illinois State has also had some turnover from last year’s team, leaving the team’s depth weak, especially in the secondary. This should allow Northwestern to be able to outlast Illinois State.

2. Illinois State’s offense is still adapting to the loss of last year’s players

Don’t be alarmed by Illinois State’s 50-13 win over Valparaiso last week. Valpo is easily one of the worst Division I football teams, and scoring 50 on them doesn’t mean much. For all of Illinois State’s offensive prowess against FCS teams, it only put up 14 points at Iowa last year, and both touchdowns were in garbage time. This year, without its dominant quarterback and running back tandem, scoring against Northwestern’s defense should be difficult.

3. The passing offense remains solid

The passing offense looked respectable last week against Western Michigan and as long as it continues to execute efficiently against an even weaker Illinois State secondary, Northwestern should be able to move the ball. The play-calling was nicely balanced last week and Northwestern does not seem afraid to test Clayton Thorson’s passing acumen, unlike much of last season. Unlike last year’s Eastern Illinois game, Northwestern’s offense will most likely have to do more than just show up to the field. However, if the passing offense remains competent, it won’t take much more than that.