Illinois (6-5) is bowl eligible for the first time since 2014, and the Illini are once again powered by a reliable ground game. After a close loss at Iowa last week, Lovie Smith’s squad can improve its bowl trip with its first win in the HAT rivalry in five years. Here are three matchups to watch when they take on the ‘Cats in Champaign:
Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown vs the Northwestern D-line
Even when Illinois has struggled in recent years, the rushing attack has been strong. The ground game is once again potent this year, and it is led by the two-headed backfield of Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown. Despite being stifled last week at Iowa, the duo has rushed for a combined 1,230 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season, averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
Northwestern’s defensive line has turned in some solid performances against the run this year, but injuries have depleted the unit. The ‘Cats rank 59th in the nation, giving up 148 yards per game, and they were torched by a strong Minnesota run game for 212 yards last week.
Whoever starts at QB vs turning the ball over
When head coach Pat Fitzgerald talks about why teams win games, he talks about taking care of the ball and winning the turnover battle. Northwestern has done just the opposite this year, throwing 14 interceptions and losing nine fumbles on the year, which puts the team at -9.
The Illinois defense, meanwhile, has been exceptional at forcing turnovers, ranking first in the country with 27. Specifically, it has recovered 16 fumbles and scored six (!) defensive touchdowns. While this unit may not be sparkling in terms of total defense, it makes big, momentum-swinging plays, and NU must protect the ball.
Drake Anderson vs the Illinois rushing defense
It looks like it will be the Drake Anderson show in the season finale. Isaiah Bowser is out for the year, and since Evan Hull has played in four games, Fitz won’t want to burn his redshirt in a matchup like this. The NU rushing attack as a whole has been fine, but Anderson, after a couple of strong early-season games, has seen intermittent playing time and mixed results.
The redshirt first-year is averaging 4.2 yards per attempt, but fortunately he’s going up against an Illinois run defense that has allowed 185 yards per game and 15 touchdowns. Expect the game plan to be run heavy, and Northwestern will likely try to chew up clock and ride Anderson on a ball-control approach.