The 2018 installment of the battle for the Land of Lincoln trophy opened with Northwestern as 18-point favorites, and I don’t think I’m crazy for saying that feels low. What I really recommend on Saturday is to watch The Game and root an Ohio State upset. Then watch the Big Ten West Champions take care of business against a lowly Illinois team. Here are three matchups to watch.
Reggie Corbin vs. Northwestern’s run defense
Corbin tweaked his ankle early in the loss to Iowa last weekend and was only held to two touches, but Lovie Smith is hopeful the explosive running back will be ready to go Saturday. He’s been a bright spot for Illinois this season, rushing for 1007 yards (8.8 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns. If you want an idea of how dangerous Corbin can be, watch his highlights against Minnesota. He had 13 carries for 213 yards, with two 70-plus-yard scores
The toughest assignment for stopping Corbin falls on Northwestern’s linebackers. Corbin is so dangerous in open space; it will be a good test for Paddy Fisher and company. The x-factor here is Travis Whillock. He’s been tremendous with 34 tackles the last three games. He nearly has the speed to run with Corbin.
A.J. Bush vs. Northwestern’s defense
Bush is most mobile quarterback that Northwestern will face all season. He has four 100-yard rushing games and Pat Fitzgerald has taken notice, calling Bush and Corbin “a devastating 1-2 punch in the backfield.” Once Illinois built a sizable lead over Minnesota, they turned to Bush to seal the game, running 11 times in the second half.
Where Bush falls short is with his arm. The lefty has thrown five touchdowns to nine interceptions and struggled significantly with his accuracy. That said, the majority of Bush’s throws are going to be quick hits. He loves explosive wideout Ricky Smalling and Dominic Stampley is a solid possession receiver. Bush and the Illinois offense will give Northwestern a look it hasn’t seen this year. Mike Hankwitz’s group will have to be flying around.
Isaiah Bowser vs. the Illinois run defense
We’re going to see a lot of Bowser on Saturday. Lovie Smith’s group is 120th in the FBS in rushing defense, allowing 243.8 yards per game. Bowser has nicely emerged as a feature (and workhorse) back in the absence of Jeremy Larkin, Mick McCall would be smart to run Bowser time and time again. Then run him some more. Solomon Vault and Chad Hanaoka should get plenty of touches as well. If Northwestern can dominate on the line of scrimmage as they should, the Wildcats will be able to control this game and put up a season-high in rushing.