One year ago, a 3-8 Northwestern squad walked into Champaign as a major underdog and dominated the Fighting Illini in all three phases of the game. This year’s game in Evanston has different circumstances as the ‘Cats look to regain some momentum before heading to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game while Illinois pushes for a statement win. Let’s take a look at some of the Land of Lincoln Trophy’s biggest matchups.
Northwestern’s secondary vs. Brandon Peters
Illinois’ offense has looked like a high school team without starting quarterback Brandon Peters. Fortunately for the Fighting Illini, his presence Saturday should cause some problems for the Wildcats, as Peters will do all he can to stretch the field. The Michigan transfer should come into this game with a huge chip on his shoulder after missing last year’s rivalry game due to concussion symptoms.
While the stats may not show it, Peters has been crucial when active this year, specifically his ability to take care of the ball. He hasn’t thrown a pick yet. It should be interesting to see how the ‘Cats secondary, which has forced nine interceptions through six games so far this season, reacts to Peters’ typically mistake-free play
The Wildcats’ rushing attack vs. Illinois’ front seven
Last year, Northwestern ran for 378 yards against Illinois and should be able to find its way out of its slump against a susceptible run defense. The group has given up 196 yards per game on the ground this year, third worst in the Big Ten.
Northwestern hasn’t rushed for over 100 yards as since it beat Nebraska in Week Three. Fortunately for Mike Bajakian’s offense, Isaiah Bowser, Drake Anderson and the rest of the running backs should find big holes for the first time in a while as the Wildcats try to establish the ground game and control the clock.
Lovie Smith vs. Pat Fitzgerald
The former Chicago Bears head coach has had a largely unimpressive tenure since becoming Illinois’ head coach in 2016. One of his biggest struggles has been his inability to beat Northwestern. That along with the Fighting Illini’s poor record year after year has put Smith on the hot seat coming into Saturday’s game. A sixth straight loss to NU for Illinois, which would ensure the fifth losing season in as many tries for Smith, might turn the heat up even more.
Smith still remains confident, having said in an interview earlier this week, “If you just look at us play, without going into records, stats and all that, we have a legitimate chance to win each week now. That hasn’t always been the case. We are better in all areas.”
From the other point of view, Fitz has had a lot of success as a head coach against Illinois, going 10-4 since he got the job back in 2006. He said the week off should help get his team back on track ahead of HAT and then the Big Ten Championship Game.