Illinois (2-9) will play #23 Northwestern (8-3) tomorrow in Champaign in the final game for the season for the Fighting Illini. The game is a 3pm kick and will be aired on national television on Fox Sports 1.
Today we are joined by Tristan Jung from SB Nation’s Inside NU. Tristan was kind enough to answer some of our questions about the “rivalry” game between Illinois and Northwestern.
1. Is Northwestern the most secretly decent team in the nation at 8-3? What has been the key to this season for the Wildcats?
TJ: Winning three straight overtime games and playing in the Big Ten West is a pretty sweet deal. The Michigan State win is the highlight of the season so far, but Iowa, Purdue, Minnesota, and Nebraska are not exactly a murderer's row. I would say Northwestern is, quietly, a very decent football team, but it's hard to claim they are a great football team. By the metrics, Northwestern is doing exactly how well it does every year, just with more luck. Pat Fitzgerald is an artist in one-score games, and while the team can get blown out, it always manages to fight back at some point in the season (it's happened in every year from 2014-2017).
The key to the turnaround has been much better pass blocking offensive line. Senior center Brad North is playing the best ball of his career right now, and everyone else looks quite solid. Even the much-maligned Blake Hance has settled in at left tackle. The group has done a great job keeping the pocket clean for Clayton Thorson. While Thorson has made his mistakes, the offensive line usually isn't causing them. The line still needs to run block better, but the pass blocking has been significantly better than any of the last three seasons.
2. Is this the ceiling for Northwestern? Can it get better than this? Could this team become a perennial contender for the Big Ten West?
TJ: I certainly hope this isn't the ceiling for Northwestern. We've never really competed for the Big Ten Championship since the divisional format was introduced, and that lack of late-season drama has been a problem. I'm not sure Northwestern fans expect to compete for a Big Ten Championship every year, and hanging around 8-9 wins per season is certainly fine, but it would've been nice if we got one huge game after Week 7 in Justin Jackson's career. Instead, we're left wondering whether 9 wins and a runner-up trophy to Wisconsin is the ceiling. Right now, it is. Northwestern hasn't shown the ability to put together an entire season. The Wildcats are in a similar position to Utah under Kyle Whittingham, the only difference being Utah did snag a share of the Pac 12 South in 2015 (its reward? The Las Vegas Bowl). Both teams are good, take care of business in an inconsistent division, and can pull off upsets over mid-tier ranked teams. However, neither can break through the glass ceiling at the right time. Hopefully that comes for Northwestern and Utah at some point, just for chaos purposes, even if the sports media world will be insufferable.
3. So Pat Fitzgerald is never going to leave is he? Over/under 20 years at Northwestern for Fitz.
TJ: Over. He talks about sending his young kids to Northwestern on a semi-regular basis. He has 45 wins in five years at Northwestern. He is the third-safest coach in the country, behind Saban and Ferentz, at least until Michigan contracts Harbaugh through the afterlife. Also, he's already been here for 12 years. He only needs eight more to get to 20, and the success of the last three years has guaranteed him at least 3-4. He basically needs one more good season in the next three years to ensure he reaches 20 years.
4. Besides Justin Jackson, who are the players for Illinois to look out for on offense
TJ: Jeremy Larkin, Jackson's erstwhile backup, looks like an even more dynamic playmaker than the Ball Carrier. While Larkin doesn't have Jackson's supernatural ability to read the play and make something out of nothing, Larkin's faster and more explosive. He's averaging 5.8 yards per carry over the past three games. Northwestern's wide receivers are good, but they're typical Northwestern wide receivers with typical Northwestern names. You have the shifty slot guy (Macan Wilson), the bigger deep threat (Bennett Skowronek) and the all-purpose superback (Garrett Dickerson).
5. How do fans of Northwestern view the "rivalry" with Illinois? Both teams haven't been good at the same time over the last decade to make this a real rivalry, but how much pride does Northwestern take from beating Illinois?
TJ: Hat hat hat.
It all depends on whether you are a Northwestern fan from the region or from out of state. Beating Illinois is deeply important for Northwestern fans from Illinois, Iowa...states where you have friends who to go Illinois. It's also important for people from Chicago itself. However, if you're like me and hail from New York, the Northwestern-Illinois rivalry barely registers. I knew more people who cared about the outcome of far-flung rivalries like Stanford/Cal than Northwestern/Illinois in my childhood. Until both teams are good, this will probably be just another "soft rivalry" game for a lot of fans. I also think the players hate Iowa more than they hate Illinois. With Lovie and Fitz in charge, you likely won't even get a chippy contest.
I think the HAT week content says it all, really.
6. How does this game play out?
TJ: Northwestern 38, Illinois 10. I think Illinois can hang around for a quarter or so, but Northwestern has too much quality for this injured Illinois roster. This may have been a one-score game (in Champaign) during Week 1, but Northwestern has been fairly lucky with injuries this season and has brings way more depth than any non-Wisconsin Big Ten West team. Wildcats should cruise, but it won't be very satisfying.
Thanks again to Tristan for joining us this week.