The Illinois Fighting Illini host the Northwestern Wildcats for The Land Of Lincoln (HAT) Trophy on Saturday. It will be the first NU/UI contest in Champaign since 2013. Here are some of the key matchups we are watching out for in this rivalry week.
Illinois linebackers vs. Northwestern running back Justin Jackson
Statistically speaking, this is Justin Jackson’s least productive season in his four years as a Northwestern Wildcat. Still, the senior from Carol Stream, Illinois, has rushed for over 1,000 yards in all four of his collegiate seasons. The only other Big Ten running back to do that is Wisconsin Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne.
Congrats to #Northwestern RB Justin Jackson, 4th on all-time Big Ten rushing list. He and Ron Dayne only Big Ten backs with 4 1,000-yard seasons. Go Cats!— Craig Ellenport (@ellenport) November 19, 2017
Anyone remember what happened the last time Justin Jackson suited up against Illinois? In Northwestern’s 42-21 rout last year, Jackson rushed for 173 yards on 21 carries, scoring three touchdowns against the Fighting Illini.
Justin Jackson is unheralded and doesn’t get nearly the amount of attention he deserves. He’s consistently solid for an offense that at times struggles throwing the football. Lovie Smith and his staff must emphasize stopping Justin Jackson in practice all week leading up to this rivalry game.
Illinois running game vs. Northwestern linebacker Paddy Fisher
Northwestern is an experienced team with juniors and seniors all over the place on both sides of the ball. Northwestern standout middle linebacker Paddy Fisher is a redshirt freshman playing like some of the great Wildcats linebackers of years past.
Fisher is third in the Big Ten in total tackles. He averages just over nine tackles per game and his four forced-fumbles this season is tied for first in the conference. He is everywhere on defense, both in passing and in running situations.
In order for the Illini to keep Paddy Fisher guessing, a strong run game has to show up on Saturday. Getting one, two and three yards per-carry isn’t going to cut it against a stifling defense. It’s time for Kendrick Foster, Reggie Corbin and company to show up on rivalry game day and compete.
Perception at Illinois vs. Perception at Northwestern
Most fans still can’t get around to believing that Northwestern is actually a better football program than Illinois, and, frankly, it has been for most of this millennium. Since and including the year 2000, Northwestern leads the rivalry series with 11 wins to Illinois’ six.
Right now, Northwestern has better football facilities. They have as much head coaching stability as any program in the entire country. They have winning pedigree having been to a bowl game the last two years. Northwestern is beating Illinois on the recruiting front, too, especially when it comes to in-state talent. The ‘Cats landed the top defensive recruit in the state — a player Illinois was recruiting hard but ultimately pledged his commitment to Northwestern.
It’s important for the perception of Illinois Fighting Illini athletics to be competitive in this game. Last year was an uneventful blowout. This year Illinois is riding a nine-game losing streak into battle against the Wildcats. Northwestern has already clinched second place in the Big Ten West and could close out their regular season by stomping on Illinois’ throats in Champaign.
Lovie Smith doesn’t seem like the type of coach that gives passionate locker room speeches. He shouldn’t have to. The few seniors on this team must insist they do not lose badly to Northwestern and play like this is their last opportunity to represent the Orange and Blue.