Illinois (4-7, 1-6) vs. Northwestern (4-7, 0-7)
Time: 2:30 pm Central
TV: Big Ten Network (Eric Collins, Chuck Long, Jon Jansen)
Line: Northwestern -3.5
Forecast: 43 degrees, sunny, 12 mph winds
Enemy Territory: Sippin' On Purple
THESE FOUR THINGS
1. This Could Be The Last Game You Ever Play, Act Like It. Saturday is Senior Day and for 15 Illini, it could be the last time they ever put on pads and play in an actual football game. I can still remember the last football game I ever played, and that was just in high school. I knew I'd never be doing it again, so I figured I may as well go out there and give it everything I had.
You know, the whole "leave nothing on the field" cliche.
I didn't make any game-winning plays or anything. In fact, we lost. But we didn't lose because of me, I knew that.
I know that tomorrow is considered a rivalry game and we're playing for the LOLHat, but this supposed rivalry with Northwestern is manufactured. Senior Day isn't. If it's your last game, you don't want to go out doing anything but all you could to win. If you aren't a senior, you don't want to let those seniors down. This sounds like I'm saying that a key to tomorrow's game is to "try hard," but even if that's oversimplifying things, it's not entirely untrue, either.
I don't know how Northwestern players feel about the Illini, but what I do know is that Northwestern has been dealt a bunch of injuries in recent weeks, and has nothing to play for but pride. Remember how we were in that same position last season? We hung with Northwestern for just about the entire first half, and looked like a team that was trying to win. But then Northwestern took a 10-point lead just before halftime, and when the second half started the Illini looked like a team that realized it was all pointless anyway.
If the Illini come out tomorrow and get off to a strong start, there's a good chance Northwestern will do the same thing. It wouldn't be the first time I saw this team do it this season. Give Northwestern a reason to quit and it will.
2. Keep It Balanced On Offense And Protect The Football. This hasn't been a good season for Northwestern, but the truth is, while the Wildcats aren't exactly great at anything, the defense certainly has flashes. It's not a great unit, but it's pretty much average in the Big Ten, and it seems equally as effective against the pass as it does the run.
The Wildcats have a defensive pass efficiency of 122.60 (48th nationally), gives up 5.38 yards per play (56th) and 4.03 yards per rush (53rd). So there really isn't a specific area of this defense you can focus on attacking, but there's also plenty of room to find success. I mean, it's still allowing 28 points per game in conference play this season.
What they are pretty good at is limiting explosion plays (plays of 20+ yards) as the Wildcats have allowed only 44 this season, which ranks 36th nationally. So you have to be patient and mix things up to move the ball down the field.
And while doing that, you have to protect the football. Northwestern has forced 22 turnovers this season, and 18 of those have been via the interception. Only Florida State, Houston and Oklahoma State have picked off more passes this season. They've also managed to score four defensive touchdowns this season.
In other words, Nathan Scheelhaase needs to be more careful on Saturday . For all the improvement Nate has shown this season, he still has a tendency to throw passes he just shouldn't. His 12 interceptions this season are a career high, and it can't just be blamed on the amount of passing attempts as analysts tried to claim during the Purdue game. In 2013 Nate is throwing one interception for every 32.1 pass attempts. In 2012 he threw one every 30.8 attempts, in 2011 it was every 36.4 attempts and in 2010 it was every 33 attempts. So he's been pretty damn consistent.
And considering that tomorrow is his last collegiate game, it's probably a bit too much to ask him to completely change now. Odds are he's going to throw at least one interception tomorrow, we just have to hope that it's not a killer.
3. If Kain Colter Plays, Hit Him. We don't know if Northwestern's Swiss Army knife is going to play on Saturday, as he's currently listed as day-to-day with an upper-body injury that most people believe is to his throwing shoulder. So odds are that if he does play, when he lines up at quarterback, he won't be passing very often. Which is great to know because it makes playing defense a little easier, but it's not exactly comforting to think Colter will do nothing but run against our defense.
But if Colter does play, no matter where he lines up, if and when he gets the ball, hit him. Punish him. Don't do anything dirty, but just approach the matter for exactly what it is. You know he's hurt. You know he's hurting. Remind him of it. Early and often. Like I went over in the first point, punishing Colter will just give him another reason to quit. It's one thing to play through pain when you're playing for something, but in a game like Saturday's, well, Colter doesn't exactly have much to gain, even if it is his last game.
So hit him and keep hitting him. Make Trevor Siemian beat you. When Siemian is in Northwestern's offense becomes a lot easier to defend since you know he isn't going to be running anywhere, and statistically he's not even as effective a passer as Colter in. Which, honestly, when your "passing quarterback" isn't as good at passing as your "running quarterback," well, maybe that helps explain why you've lost your last seven games.
4. Hold The Wildcats To Field Goals. Here's a misleading stat for you. Northwestern leads the nation in red zone scoring percentage at 97.56%, as the Wildcats have put points on the board 40 of the 41 times they've had an offensive possession inside the red zone. That's impressive.
However, what's not nearly as impressive is the fact that the Wildcats are averaging only 4.54 points per red zone possession, which ranks only fifth in the Big Ten. That's because while Northwestern scores once it gets into the red zone, it has to settle for a lot more field goals than it would like. Of their 40 scores inside the 20, only 22 have been touchdowns. The Wildcats have kicked 18 field goals.
Let's help them try to get an even split in that category. If Northwestern gets inside the 20, hold it to a field goal. Yes, field goals still put points on the board -- hey, you can force a turnover if you prefer, I'm not telling you not to -- but at the same time, they're also deflating. To drive down the field time after time and have to keep settling for field goals is deflating to a team.
And once again we come back to our first point. Limiting this team to field goals is giving it just one more reason to quit.
Fornelli: I can't say I'm extremely confident that the Illini are going to win this game, at least, not like I was last week. I knew we were going to beat Purdue, and I was actually surprised by how close that game was. This week I think we're going to win, but I'm not expecting it to be easy. And like last week, I think we'll probably be the team stopping us more often than it will be Northwestern. But I do believe it's going to happen. We head into the offseason feeling very good about ourselves, and with some optimism for 2014. Illinois 27-20 (9-2 on the season).
Primiano: As my bet in this week's YBYA spoiled, I'm taking the Illini. Beating Purdue this year isn't much of an accomplishment but it definitely counts as forward momentum. NW has lost players all season, refused to alter their gameplans in spite of that, and seem like a team that's honestly just ready to start studying for finals. The Illini bring home their second Monopoly piece trophy of the season. Illinois 30-17 (8-3 on the season).
Birkhead: I really think the seniors, especially Nathan Scheelhasse, want to go out with a win. After all they have been through, they really deserve it. They are playing a team they can beat, and it's senior day and the last day of football many of the starters will play, ever. I think they will play with a lot of passion and go out with a win. Illinois 34-27 (9-2 on the season).
Cassidy: This is the most important game for Illinois football in the past two years, which says too much about the state of Illinois football. But still. Huge ball game. Lets have these seniors go out on a good note, beating those tail spinning Cats. Illinois 28-24 (7-4 on the season).