The History: The first two games ever played between the Illinois Fighting Illini and Northwestern Wildcats occurred in 1892 and ‘93. Those games ended in 16-16 and 0-0 ties. Illinois leads the series 55-51-5. Since, and including 1927, Illinois and Northwestern have played one another every single football season. There’s more history here than ‘bad blood’, but considering Northwestern’s won three straight and five of the last six, the Fighting Illini are desperate to earn a win against their rivals to the north.
The now for Northwestern: Northwestern is going to Indianapolis to play the winner of the Michigan/Ohio State game in the Big Ten Championship. Northwestern clinched the Big Ten West a couple of weeks ago when the ‘Cats toppled the Iowa Hawkeyes in Iowa City, so last weekend’s Minnesota game was moot point. Northwestern lost three of its first four games, including a loss to MAC team Akron.
Since losing to Michigan on Sept. 29, Northwestern’s gone 5-1, the one loss being to an undefeated and likely College Football Playoff bound Notre Dame. With a win against Illinois, Northwestern will finish the season 8-4 before postseason play starts.
The now for Illinois: There’s a finality to the last game of the season in the sense that the taste in Lovie Smith’s mouth as he walks off of the field on Saturday will last many, many months until Spring Ball starts up again. “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” coaches of all sports preach to their teams. That applies here, especially against a team you compete with both on the field and off of it (‘crootin’).
WHEN NORTHWESTERN HAS THE FOOTBALL
Clayton Thorson’s been at this a long, long time
The Northwestern Wildcats run a pro-style offense, and quarterback Clayton Thorson will be playing in his 51st collegiate game when he suits up against Illinois this Thanksgiving weekend. That’s a whole lot of experience playing under the same head coach at one university — good luck finding such longevity elsewhere in the college football landscape.
The only quarterback in the Big Ten this season that has more pass attempts than Thorson is Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins. Thorson averages about one interception per game — his 12 on the season are tied for second-most in the conference with Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey. The only player with more interceptions than Thorson and Ramsey is Rutgers’ Artur Sitkowski.
In three previous matchups against Illinois in 2015, ‘16 and ‘17, Thorson’s passing numbers look like this: 39/66 completions, 407 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s been decent, yet far from spectacular against the Illini. The two most recent contests were blowout wins in favor of the ‘Cats; 42-7 in 2017 and 42-21 in 2016.
Isaiah Bowser has emerged as Northwestern’s workhorse running back
The sad tale of Jeremy Larkin’s condition is celebrated by nobody, including the most die-hard Illini fans. He had a solid game against Illinois last season in Champaign, rushing nine times for 71 yards and a touchdown.
Since he’s left the team and medically retired from football, true freshman Isaiah Bowser has really picked up the load here in the final stretch of the season. Bowser’s coming out party was in Northwestern’s win at Rutgers. He ran 24 times for 108 yards and two touchdowns in that game. Against Iowa on the road a couple of weeks ago, which can be considered a turning point in the program for Northwestern, Bowser ran 31 times for 165 yards and a touchdown. He also had three catches for 33 yards in that game.
An Ohio kid, Bowser was overlooked by all other Power 5 conference except for Northwestern who offered him a scholarship his senior year. He’s not particularly fast or big, he just gets the job done and earns tough yardage mostly up the middle. Most recently in last week’s win against Minnesota, Bowser had 25 carries for 85 yards and two touchdowns.
Illinois’ run defense is awful. The Illini have a tendency to make any running back look good — see Nebraska’s Devine Ozgibo, Maryland’s Javon Leake, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, Purdue’s DJ Knox — the list goes on and on in every game the Illini have played. Even if the game is close (or not), expect Isaiah Bowser to stuff the stat sheet.
WHEN ILLINOIS HAS THE FOOTBALL
It all starts with Reggie Corbin (if he can go) and the rushing attack
The Iowa game last week was a test of tests for OC Rod Smith and his star player Reggie Corbin. They failed miserably. Corbin was banged up from the previous week against Nebraska and it limited him to a single rush attempt against the Hawkeyes. He was hurt. Iowa dared AJ Bush to throw the ball and he did to the tune of 12/28 for 82 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns.
The ‘Cats are a top 40 run defense nationally and actually did a great job limiting Big Ten players Jonathan Taylor and Mekhi Sargent in wins against Wisconsin and Iowa earlier this year. With Mike Epstein out for the rest of the year, Ra’Von Bonner did his best to step up against the Hawkeyes. He’ll need to have a big game in Evanston for the Illini to have any chance at a season-ending W.
Northwestern sophomore linebacker Blake Gallagher has been outstanding — he’s surrounded by plenty of talent, too
Paddy Fisher is the vocal leader and anchor of this Northwestern D, Joe Gaziano is a menace at defensive end and is one of the Big Ten sacks leaders (he had a strip sack turnover against the Gophers), but Blake Gallagher is a tackling machine. He’s one of the Big Ten’s leaders in total tackles and swarms the football.
Outside of Iowa’s and possibly Penn State’s, the ‘Cats’ defense is better than all of the teams Illinois has faced this season.
This is a rivalry game. Anything can happen.
Two teams. Two different paths. Northwestern didn’t look particularly great at Minnesota last weekend. They still won by 10 points. Good teams win games even when they don’t play well.
lllinois is coming off of its worst performance in the 100+ year history of the program to a nothing-special Iowa team. The phrase ‘rock bottom’ gets thrown around a lot. This time it’s literal and real. A reasonable question is: Are these guys motivated to beat Northwestern just days after the most humiliating loss in their lifetimes? Is the coaching staff motivated? It should be easy to get up and get ready for the Northwestern game — but 63-0 is something that lingers and lasts a long, long time.
It’s hard to be hopeful. It’s hard to be optimistic. There’s still that tiny chance, that minuscule shred of belief. Anything can happen.
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