Happy Thanksgiving! We're not going to ruin your day with Illinois football or Bill Cubit extension talk, but we'll instead take a closer look at the No. 16 Northwestern Wildcats (9-2). Let's welcome Zach Pereles from Inside NU as he joins us to preview Illinois' final game of the season.
1. Holy crap, Northwestern is 9-2 with wins over Stanford, Wisconsin, and Penn State. How big of a surprise has the team been?
Yeah, that sentiment of "Holy crap, Northwestern is 9-2..." is probably shared with just about every Northwestern fan there is. This has been a huge surprise. The Wildcats have majorly overachieved, gotten lucky in several games and, most importantly, won every close game this year, which is a nice departure from the trend of the past two seasons. Give or take a play or two (with the Wisconsin game being the best example), and this team could be down near .500. But somehow, it isn't.
2. The Northwestern defense is No. 6 in the latest S&P+ rankings, and they've been fantastic for just about the entire season. Who should Illini fans look out for on this side of the ball?
It really starts up front with bookend senior defensive ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson. Both guys are strong and quick and play the run and the pass equally well and can absolutely torture opposing tackles. When the line is playing well, this defense is really tough, because the linebacking core has a good mix of experience and young athleticism, led by Anthony Walker in the middle. He'll probably collect double-digit tackles Saturday. Finally, the defensive backfield has been outstanding, led by the fantastic play of cornerback Matthew Harris, who is just about as close to shutdown as you can get.
3. Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson form quite a potent combination in the Northwestern backfield. How key have they been to the Wildcats' success?
These guys are really important, but for different reasons. Northwestern simply needs Thorson to not turn the ball over, pick up first downs on third down and just be a smart player. Then, the team leans on Jackson, who is basically the entire offense at this point, along with the other running backs. When Jackson is gaining positive yards, especially on early downs, Northwestern is set up for success. Basically, the team needs Thorson to just be competent and hope Jackson continues to be one of the best backs in the conference and perhaps the nation.
4. What's your opinion of Illinois heading into the game? Do you envision the Illini giving Northwestern much trouble on either side of the ball?
Illinois will present a challenge, simply because one it's a rivalry game, two the Illini are fighting for bowl eligibility and three Northwestern's offense is really bad. Advanced stats seem to like Illinois, and I think that this game will come down to the fourth quarter. Defensively, Northwestern got burnt last year by Illinois, so you can't count that out, but it's when the Wildcats have the ball that they will struggle, like they have basically all year.
5. A majority of Illinois fans aren't very happy about this game being played in Chicago, and it doesn't do the Illini any favors now that bowl eligibility is officially on the line. Do you expect a good turnout from Northwestern fans?
I would expect a good turnout from Northwestern fans-- better than any other road game-- but still not a great turnout. Most families are going to be away for Thanksgiving, and families usually constitute a good amount of the crowd at Ryan Field. I don't think there will be any sort of advantage for Northwestern when it comes to crowd size or noise.
6. How do Northwestern fans view the Illinois rivalry?
I think there's a general dislike of Illinois simply because the two schools share the state, but I wouldn't really consider it a true rivalry like we'll see in several games across the nation this week. To the players and coaches, it's a huge rivalry, but to the fan base not so much.
7. What's your prediction for the LOLhat game?
I've got Northwestern winning 17-10. It'll be tough to watch offensively, but perhaps a defensive touchdown or a couple big turnovers will swing the game in Northwestern's direction.
Thank you again to Zach for taking the time to answer our questions! For more on Northwestern, make sure to follow Inside NU on Twitter (@insidenu). You can also check out their website for news and updates leading up to the game.