This Saturday, the Wildcats face the Illinois Fighting Illini in the season finale in Champaign. Despite the abhorrent season, Northwestern has a chance to finish on a high note by winning the HAT and keeping it in Evanston. Here are three things to know about our rivals down south:
The Illini play up and down to its opponents
Illinois has won a few games this season that many felt the team had no business winning. First, the Illini shocked the college football world at the start of the season by taking care of Nebraska in the opener. Then, the Illini beat Penn State in nine overtimes. Finally, just two weeks ago, Illinois beat the Golden Gophers 14-6 just one week after Minnesota thrashed Northwestern 41-14.
The issue with Illinois, however, is that just as the team plays up to its opponents, Bret Bielema’s team also plays down to them. Illinois fell to UTSA in the second week of the season after beating Nebraska. While that loss looks far better in hindsight as UTSA is now ranked No. 22 in the CFB playoff rankings, the Illini also have losses to both Rutgers and Maryland on the season, two bottomfeeders in the Big Ten East.
The strength of this team is on defense and special teams
According to Bill Connelly’s SP+, the Illini rank 104th in offensive SP+, 46th in defensive SP+ and third in special teams SP+. Sounds like a classic Bret Bielema team. Defensively, the Illini do not do anything remarkably well. The team is ranked 70th in the FBS in rushing yards allowed per game and 58th in the FBS in passing yards allowed per game. The Illini defense is, however, really good on third down. The team ranks 37th nationally with a 35.8% third down defensive conversion rate. Illinois also ranks 29th in the nation with 5.18 penalties per game, coincidentally falling just behind Northwestern.
On special teams, it is hard to find the main reason behind the Illini’s high SP+ ranking, but it must begin with the team ranking 17th nationally in punt return defense. Surprisingly, Northwestern ranks 7th nationally in yards per punt return, so this will be an interesting matchup to watch on Saturday. The Illini also rank 11th nationally in net punting per play.
Illinois is still (maybe) playing for the postseason
While there may not be a more prestigious game played this weekend than the one for the HAT, there are also additional implications on the line for Illinois. It is a long shot, yes, but the Fighting Illini could still theoretically make a bowl game with five wins. Bielema’s squad will undoubtedly be fighting hard on Saturday to finish what has been a solid season in his first year in Champaign.