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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Illinois

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The Wildcats aim to defeat their southern rival for the sixth consecutive time.

Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern takes on Illinois at Ryan Field on Saturday at 11 a.m. for its final matchup of the regular season. The Wildcats took down the Illini 29-10 last season behind a strong day on the ground in a game in which they threw the ball just 10 times. Here are three reasons why Northwestern will win the HAT for a sixth straight year and three reasons it won’t.

Why Northwestern will beat Illinois

The Northwestern front seven stifles the run

One area of consistent success for Illinois has been its ability to run the football. Its overall offense ranks in the latter half of ESPN’s SP+ rankings, but the Illini have quietly rushed for the 24th most yards per game in the FBS this season. Behind a lethal running back tandem spearheaded by junior Chase Brown and senior Mike Epstein, Illinois has averaged an impressive 210 rushing yards per game. Like Rocky Lombardi, quarterback Brandon Peters can also be a threat with his legs. After Northwestern’s game against Michigan State in which the front seven struggled to contain quarterback draws and outside runs, it will need to clamp down against a more talented rushing attack this Saturday.

The Wildcat backfield finds success on the ground

After starting the year with a successful commitment to running the ball often, NU’s rushing attack has faded in recent weeks, averaging a paltry 56 rushing yards per game over its last three contests. Even in their latest contest against an average Michigan State defense, lead backs Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson struggled. Thankfully for Northwestern, Illinois has the third-worst rushing defense in the Big Ten, allowing an average of 196 yards on the ground per game. On a day when rain is in the forecast, the ability to run the ball will be a crucial for Mike Bajakian’s offense.

History is on Northwestern’s side

Northwestern fans know their team’s HAT dominance. The ‘Cats have won seven of their last eight contests against the Illini, including the last five. What’s more is that per our own Daniel Olinger, Northwestern has scored above its season average in points per game when facing Illinois every year since 2009. As it stands, the current winning streak is currently Northwestern’s longest in the history of the rivalry, and a win Saturday would bring them just one victory away from .500 in the all-time series record for the first time. Still, as Pat Fitzgerald and his players noted in Monday’s press conference, anything can happen in a rivalry game.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Illinois

Peyton Ramsey struggles throwing the ball in the rain

Somehow it’s only the first B1G weather forecast of this delayed season. Lots of wind, rain and potentially some wet snow is coming to Ryan Field on Saturday. From dropped passes to missed throws, the Northwestern passing attack has had more than its fair share of flaws and slip-ups in recent weeks, and the unfavorable weather conditions could spell trouble for Peyton Ramsey and the wideouts. It certainly doesn’t help that the run game has been ineffective as of late. If Northwestern fails to get anything going through the air, things could get ugly.

The ‘Cats fail to score toward the end of the game

Except for the first game of the year, every contest that Northwestern has played has been a nail-biter. In fact, the Wildcats’ biggest margin of victory since the Maryland game is just 10 points, and the offense has failed to score a single point in the final eight minutes of every game. Its struggle to put points on the board in the fourth quarter, which has come as a result of conservative playcalling and inabilities to execute, has led to close wins and a disappointing loss in East Lansing. Regardless of what the score is by the fourth quarter, Northwestern will need to keep their foot on the gas to ensure a victory in this one.

Anything can happen in a rivalry game

Northwestern may be the better team on paper going into this contest, but as we saw last year, you never know what can happen when playing for the HAT. NU managed to dominate Illinois 29-10 last year despite coming into the game winless in the Big Ten while the Illini had won four games in conference play for the first time since 2010. The roles are reversed this year as the ‘Cats head into the matchup as double-digit favorites en route to their second division title in the past three years. It is 2020, it is a rivalry game and Illinois still is a Big Ten team that has been competitive in four of its six games.