When we last saw Northwestern take the field, it was upset on the road by Michigan State 29-20, just days after being slotted as the eighth-best team in the College Football Playoff rankings. Now, after a COVID-19 outbreak within the Minnesota football program caused the Wildcats’ contest with the Golden Gophers to be canceled — giving them a much-needed bye week in which they formally clinched the Big Ten West title — they’ll close their regular season in Evanston against rival Illinois in the battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy (or, as it’s known commonly around these parts, HAT).
In the midst of a regression after its first bowl-eligible season since 2014, here are three things to know about Illinois.
The Illini passing game is less explosive than it was last year
One of the first differences that Northwestern fans will notice between this year’s Illinois team and last year’s is senior Brandon Peters starting a quarterback. This isn’t so much an actual change for the Illini themselves as it is a change within the realm of the HAT game, as Peters, a transfer from Michigan, was U of I’s starter last year and played a critical role in the program’s most relevant season in years despite missing its contest with Northwestern due to a concussion.
Like the rest of his team, Peters is simply not performing as well this season as he did in 2019. Part of it is pandemic-induced: after a dismal opening performance against Wisconsin in which he completed only eight of 19 passing attempts for 87 yards, Peters tested positive for COVID-19, prompting him to miss the Illini’s next three games. While his return against Nebraska was relatively strong, and he passed for two touchdowns against Iowa last week, he’s still only averaging 136 passing yards a game, which is not the mark Illinois fans were looking for from their captain.
With the general troubles of the Peters comes a downtick in the production of Josh Imatorbhebhe, who led the Illini in receiving with 634 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Despite having played in all six games this year, Imatorbhebhe, who, like Peters, transferred from a bigger name school (USC) and was out for last year’s HAT game due to injury, hasn’t broken 75 yards receiving once all season, despite doing so on three separate occasions last year.
The defense has fallen off, too
Illinois has also been significantly weaker than it was last season on defense. It was technically the Illini’s stronger unit last season, ranking 54th in the year-end S&P+ rankings as opposed to the offense’s 92nd ranking. That said, the departures of leading tackler Dele Harding at linebacker and Oluwole Betiku Jr., Ayo Shogbonyo and Jamal Milan on the defensive line have created some holes that opposing offenses have taken advantage of.
The secondary in particular has struggled. If you recall from the build-up to Northwestern’s upset of Wisconsin, Badgers freshman QB Graham Mertz ripped Illinois to shreds in the season opener, throwing 21 passes for 20 completions, 248 yards and five touchdowns en route to a blowout 45-7 victory before testing positive for COVID-19 and returning with much more mediocre game. Indeed, Illinois has made pedestrian passers look prolific, as Mertz’s performance was still below the 250.5 average passing yards per game it has allowed this year.
As a result, the defense’s overall statistics have taken a hit. After ranking 54th in scoring defense last season, giving up 32.5 points per game rates 89th nationally.
Northwestern has dominated the HAT series of late
This is probably clear to just about anyone who has consistently watched NU and Illinois square off in recent memory, but the statistical degree of the Wildcats’ command in the series is somewhat astonishing. For starters, the ‘Cats enter the week having won the last five HAT games, their largest such streak against Illinois. Since the turn of the century, Northwestern leads the series 14-6. Pat Fitzgerald has more wins against the Illini than any other opponent with 10.
While it might be fun to believe that Northwestern’s dominance of Illinois is due to some sort of rivalry game factor, it’s also because NU is simply a stronger program. Since 2000, Northwestern has ended 13 of its seasons with a win percentage of .500 or better. In the same time frame, Illinois has finished .500 or better only four times.