Behind Enemy Lines – Illinois

As high as the hopes and expectations were this off-season, I don’t think anyone in Evanston or beyond really saw the Northwestern Wildcats entering the final game of the season at 9-2 and on the verge of a New Years day bowl game.

enemy lines illinoisLooking back, their success is a little bit difficult to explain. The third worst scoring offense in the Big Ten, the worst passing offense, and the second most punts (only one behind Purdue). These things do not typically add up to 9-2. But somehow the Wildcats, their red shirt freshman quarterback and their absolutely stellar defense, are #16 in the CFP rankings.

Northwestern will close out the season on Saturday at Soldier Field against the Fighting Illini. Illinois’ season as not been a good one, entering the game 5-6 (2-5 in conference play). Illinois has won three of the last five meetings with Northwestern and can clinch bowl eligibility for themselves with a win.

This is a battle of two very, very bad scoring offenses – Illinois only averages .5 more points per game than the Wildcats. They are led by junior quarterback Wes Lunt, who leads the Big Ten in completions per game (22.7) and ranks fourth in passing yards per game (229.1), but those numbers have not led to wins.

Like every quarterback Northwestern has faced, his numbers are still miles ahead of Clayton Thorson’s. If any of Northwestern’s games had been shoot outs, they would definitely not have the record they have. Luckily, this does not appear to be the case against the struggling Illinois offense, whose scoring average is a bit inflated by a couple of early season blow outs.

Illinois’ running game is built around senior Josh Ferguson, who missed a few games in the middle of the season due to injury, but has been outstanding in the three games since his return. He gained 174 all-purpose yards in their win over Purdue and 140 all-purpose yards last week in a loss against Minnesota.

Northwestern’s Justin Jackson will be relied on to lead their offense as well, and Illinois is going to have their hands full. Illinois’ defense has given up over 150 yards rushing five times this season, and has given up over 200 yards in four of those games. Northwestern is 7-0 when Jackson rushes for over 100 yards, and expect him to reach that mark against Illinois.

The Illini’s defense is led by senior FS Clayton Fejedelem, who leads the Big Ten and is 6th in the nation in tackles per game (11.3), and has averaged 12.3 TPG in conference play. But that is one bright spot in a defense that has struggled this season, giving up over 23 points per game. Both quarterbacks will need to limit their turnovers – Illinois and Northwestern are both tied for 2nd in the Big Ten with 12 interceptions.

While this appears to be an easy win for Northwestern, it is extremely important that they not look passed this game. They have an opportunity to put the finishing touches on an outstanding season, and a win this weekend will show just how much this team has grown from the team of the last few years who would have lost games like this. Illinois has a lot on the line and Northwestern has a target on their back as a ranked team and a local opponent.

This game is not going to be pretty and Northwestern is no stranger to winning ugly games. The team that makes the least amount of mistakes may very well win it. Luckily, that has been Northwestern’s calling card all season.