It’s rivalry week, and the Wildcats prepare for a familiar opponent as the Fighting Illini make yet another trip up north in the battle for HAT.
After a strong 2019 campaign that saw Illinois earn its first bowl appearance since 2014, Lovie Smith’s squad has taken a few steps backward in 2020 after the coronavirus hit the program early. Despite wins over Rutgers and Nebraska, Illinois has suffered losses to its four other opponents and faces an uphill battle in its season finale.
To break down the Illini’s struggles this season, hopes for the future and perspective on the rivalry, we chatted with Gabby Hajduk, sports editor of The Daily Illini.
INU: Brandon Peters has had a tough year both on the field and when he was sidelined for three games with COVID-19. What have you seen from him this season, and how do you expect he and the offense will fare against the Wildcat defense?
DI: It was definitely unfortunate Brandon got COVID because he didn’t get an immediate chance to redeem himself after a pretty ugly performance at Wisconsin in Week 1. And despite Illinois’ record, I think Brandon is still a talented quarterback. He has a strong arm and can make the difficult throws, but he hasn’t showed the ability, at least in this season, to provide a spark for the offense when they continuously stall on drives. I think the Wildcat defense will give him some trouble given they only give up around 15 points a game. The Illini aren’t a scoring powerhouse by any means, and I doubt they’ll start against this team.
INU: This rivalry game always holds extra weight for Northwestern, but with NU already clinching the West and Illinois likely out of bowl contention, how do you think this year’s matchup will compare?
DI: Rivalries never die no matter the weight the game holds in the long run. These teams dislike each other and will always want the bragging rights associated with the win. And while a win would mean more for Northwestern position-wise as far as bowl placement, I think it means more for the pride and mentality of Illinois. The Wildcats have beat the Illini the last five times they have met, and I think Illinois is longing to end that streak. Lovie Smith will also be fighting to keep his job and keep his program’s trust and will put more emphasis on getting this win.
INU: What are your impressions of Northwestern, especially following some big wins and a tough loss to Michigan State, and what aspect of the Wildcats’ play is most intimidating to the Illini?
DI: After a down season last year, the Wildcats made the necessary adjustments and improvements needed to advance to the top of the Big Ten. Northwestern made new offensive hires and brought in a veteran quarterback to rejuvenate and reinvent the Wildcats’ offense. While the offense isn’t putting up crazy numbers, a consistent defense has grounded this team which has been impressive to watch. I think the most intimidating factor is Northwestern’s ability to create turnovers. Typically the Illini have a clear advantage in that category, but the Wildcats bring that factor to the table as well. While Peters is pretty disciplined, I could so Northwestern forcing a couple costly mistakes out of the QB that could put the game away.
INU: What does Illinois have to do to take down Northwestern, and what is a matchup that the Illini need to win in order to beat the Wildcats?
DI: To come out with the upset, the Illini need both lines to play strong. When the offensive line plays at the elite level they’re capable of, it’s hard for the Illini to lose. And when the D-Line is able to bring pressure to the quarterback, the Illini can hurry offenses off the field. But the matchup Illinois must win is in the rushing game. Northwestern is holding opponents to just 116 rushing yards per game and has allowed just two rushing TDs. Illinois averages 210 yards on the ground and has scored eight rushing TDs this season. If Chase Brown and Mike Epstein can break through a talented D-Line, Illinois might have a chance to claim the rivalry’s bragging rights.
INU: After an impressive campaign last season and an underwhelming performance this year, what will Illinois’ focus be this offseason to get back to that level of play in 2021?
DI: I’m not sure they can get back to that level. Right now the 2019 campaign looks to be a little flukey considering most of the roster was sustained this season, but the production has not. It’s also difficult to improve with a lack of consistent recruiting across all positions, something Lovie has struggled with. The biggest thing is just finding consistency on offense. While Illinois’ QB room struggled due to COVID-19 issues, there still hasn’t been enough consistency in any aspect on the offense. Solidifying the quarterback situation will be crucial so the offense can create an identity in the offseason, something they lacked to find early in the season.
INU: What is your score prediction?
DI: Northwestern 27, Illinois 13