Northwestern travels to Champaign this Thanksgiving weekend to face a familiar opponent, the Fighting Illini of Illinois. Lovie Smith’s team currently sits at 6-5 and has already qualified for a bowl game, but this is a massive game for Illinois, who hasn’t had control of the HAT in quite some time. Here are three things to know before the Wildcats take on their little brother to the south:
Northwestern has had Illinois’ number as of late
While these two programs are currently trending in different directions, the past seven years of this rivalry represent a different course. The ‘Cats have taken six of the last seven against the Illini, and NU has won those games by an average margin of 17. Don’t fall victim to recency bias, Northwestern has established a program with more consistency and prestige heading into the new century.
Going back to the start of the Pat Fitzgerald era, NU’s head coach is 9-4 against the Illini and has remained in Evanston while Illinois has gone through five head coaches, Those coaches have a combined record of 62-180 and a winning percentage of 34 percent. No matter how bad this year has been, be thankful you’re not an Illinois fan.
But Lovie Smith has done a great job this year
All jokes aside, what Illinois has done this year is impressive. Having failed to reach a bowl since 2014, Smith’s squad has already confirmed that it will break its drought, and it will have a chance to break an eight year streak without a postseason victory. Most preseason predictions wouldn’t have credited Illinois with a 6+ win season, but some clutch late-game play has allowed that to happen.
Against a then-undefeated Wisconsin, Illinois came back from a nine-point deficit in the final seven minutes of the game. The win shook the landscape of the Big Ten and let the nation know that Illinois was not the laughing stock it had become in recent years.
Later in the season, the Illini overcame a 21-point fourth quarter to further cement a disappointing year for Michigan State. The will and determination displayed from Illinois this year has earned the team a great deal of respect, and capping the regular season off with a win against its rival would be another big step.
Brandon Peters is a big reason for Illinois’ success
The Fighting Illini haven’t had a starting quarterback with a positive touchdown to interception ratio since 2016, so the former Michigan quarterback’s decision to transfer has payed great dividends for a team that desperately needed leadership and talent at the position. With a 17:7 TD to INT ratio, Peters has allowed Smith a chance to be comfortable with his QB and focus on other aspects of the team.
By no means is Peters a miracle worker, nor has he been one of the best quarterbacks in the conference, but by bringing a sense of veteran poise and stability to the position, he altered the outlook of the team’s season.