Here we are: the last week of Northwestern’s season has arrived. Sitting at 1-10 overall and 1-7 in Big Ten play, the ‘Cats would love to send out their seniors by taking back the HAT and upsetting Illinois (7-4, 4-4 B1G). However, Bret Bielema’s squad has been better in nearly every facet than anyone outside of Champaign could have expected going into the fall.
It just played No. 3 Michigan down to the final snap. Chase Brown is healthy, and the Illini are still in Big Ten West contention fresh off a three-game losing streak. This is far from a trap game, which makes it even more imperative for Northwestern to win at least some of these three important matchups:
Chase Brown vs. Northwestern’s linebacking corps
It's no secret that Brown is one of the nation's best running backs — he has even earned buzz as a fringe Heisman candidate. His 1,582 rushing yards top the FBS, and the junior is such a focal point of Illinois's run-heavy attack that he has single-handedly buoyed the Illini offense at times. Against Michigan, which has given up the second-lowest rushing yards per game average in the nation, Brown racked up 140 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries.
Given how Northwestern fared against Minnesota's Mohamed Ibrahim just 10 days ago, that's a major cause for concern. As an elusive halfback, Brown is ever more dangerous when he has space past the defensive line and can rip off a touchdown with just one extra missed tackle in the open field. Whether it's the off-ball linebackers closing off the sidelines or Bryce Gallagher preventing Brown from gaining momentum as he starts to accelerate, Northwestern's second-level defenders have to limit big plays for the 'Cats to have a fighting chance.
Jer’Zhan Newton vs. Charlie Schmidt, Vincent Picozzi and Ethan Wiederkehr
Newton, a defensive lineman for the Illini, has quietly been one of the best interior defenders in the nation this season. Pro Football Focus selected him to its midseason All-America team, and the sophomore is tied for the third-most sacks in the Big Ten with six. Newton also spearheads an Illinois run defense that surrenders fewer than 100 yards per game, which has played a huge part in limiting opponents to just 13.1 points per game.
Northwestern's offensive line has undergone constant reshuffling throughout the season, leaving center Charlie Schmidt as the only Week Zero starter on the interior who is still at his original position. He, Vincent Picozzi and Ethan Wiederkehr have at least held their ground against many of the tough defenses NU has faced through its back half of the season. Considering how predictable and run-heavy Mike Bajakian's playcalling has been in recent weeks, it's impressive that the line created enough room for Evan Hull to rush for over 100 yards against Ohio State and Purdue.
With the injury situation still uncertain in front of Cole Freeman, the 'Cats will almost certainly have to depend on diligent ball security and a steady ground game to get anything going offensively. Much like Penn State's PJ Mustipher imposed his will on Hull and Cam Porter in Northwestern's 17-7 loss in Happy Valley by denying them most inside lanes, Newton can do the same if he doesn't get enough attention.
Illinois vs. Evanston’s chaotic weather
It's almost like there's a biblical weather plague that comes as a package deal with the curse of failing to win football games in the United States. Weather forecasts note Evanston's temperatures should actually near 50 degrees around the 2:30 p.m. kickoff after Northwestern played in windy and cold conditions at Minnesota and Purdue, which is strange by itself. However, showers also appear to be in the cards for Saturday. And if there's one positive from NU's season, it's that absurd weather conditions have allowed it to put vastly superior opponents on upset watch (see: Ohio State and Penn State).
Will light rain affect play that much? Probably not. But hey, one can dream — it's almost a natural reflex to do so and find hope in a 10-game losing streak that's coming up on a full Northwestern academic quarter. Maybe Bielema limits Tommy DeVito enough to allow Jim O'Neil's unit to sell out against Brown? Crazier things have happened.