The Land of Lincoln Trophy. The Illinois Fighting Illini versus the Northwestern Wildcats in a true home game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. It’s Senior Day, too. It is nice to know that bowl eligibility is not on the line. It is not so nice to know that Northwestern is on a 4-game winning streak in this series, and they could make it five — five straight wins would be the longest streak against Illinois in the history of this rivalry.
Lovie Smith’s men cannot let that happen. Not in 2019. Not in a year in which Illinois is better than Northwestern in almost every statistical category. Not in a year in which Illinois has shattered expectations, while Northwestern has fallen flat less than 12 months after reaching the Big Ten Conference Championship game. Not in a year in which quarterback catastrophe does not even begin to describe the situation under center in Evanston.
This is rivalry week. This is Illinois versus “that team up north”. This is revenge.
Long Story, Short: Northwestern is bad because of its offense
When Northwestern has the ball... Quarterback issues all season long
Oh boy — Aside from Akron in the opening week, this Northwestern team presents the worst offense Illinois has faced all season, and that includes games against UConn, EMU and Rutgers. Sure Rutgers is worse on offense than NU is in a few categories, but since NU is significantly more woeful at passing, I tip the scales towards the purple guys as having the most inept offense in the Big Ten.
Northwestern is second to last in the Big Ten in scoring offense. They are second to last in the Big Ten in total offense. They are last in the Big Ten in passing offense — their pass offense is flat out atrocious as they’ve been through the wringer with a revolving door at the starting quarterback position between Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson, junior Aidan Smith and now Andrew Marty. In the week leading up to Northwestern’s home game versus Minnesota, Johnson was dropped from NU’s team-sheet/depth chart for what has continued to be a combination of injuries and personal issues piling up — though he did end up making an appearance against the Gophers.
A lot of was expected of Hunter Johnson, a former 5-star quarterback prospect from Indianapolis who fell behind in the Clemson Tigers’ depth chart, opting to transfer closer to home with the opportunity to start for a Big Ten team. Johnson’s been a real disappointment, and the numbers are ugly: 50/108 passing for 432 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions.
Against Minnesota, third string quarterback Andrew Marty wasn’t half bad: He completed eight of ten passes for 95 yards and one touchdown. On the ground, he had 16 carries for 52 yards and two scores. The Wildcats did not commit a single turnover, and Marty was not sacked.
Take out the Minnesota game (a 38-22 loss for NU), and these comments from Pat Fitzgerald regarding the quarterback situation are pretty scathing. They were made on Monday, November 18 in the presser leading up to NU’s game vs Minnesota. *Credit to our frienemies over at InsideNU for this.
On how to fix the QB issues: “It starts with preparation. It’s pretty obvious that some of our guys did not do the things they needed to do to prepare for the season. The production, or lack thereof, is a testament to preparation. In the preseason, we sat here and everyone told me who my starting quarterback was and I told everyone there was a battle. Obviously, I ended up being right...But it comes down to me. The best person has to play, the most consistent person has to play, not the media-anointed one.” “That is the number one room that I will get fixed. Period. End of discussion. Jason and Andrew are chomping at the bit to get an opportunity. Aidan and Hunter have to prepare better. And they have to preform better. No one was ready to take on the starting role.”
That’s a pretty scathing analysis of the situation from the coach who blames the lack of attendance at football games to an over-usage of smart phones amongst millennials. Yeah, he actually thinks that.
The run game is average, ranking 7th out of 14 in the Big Ten
Isaiah Bowser was supposed to be the main tailback for Northwestern. He’s missed the last four games because of injury and his status is unclear for the Illinois game on Saturday. NU has sorely missed Bowsers 866 yards and six rushing touchdowns from a season ago.
Redshirt freshman Drake Anderson and true freshman Evan Hull are the primary ball carriers for this team when Bowser is out. Anderson and Hull have combined for 176 carries, 830 yards and seven touchdowns.
Wide receiver Riley Lees catches a lot of balls
Northwestern’s poor pass offense has been reliant on pretty much one primary wide receiver, and that’s Riley Lees, a junior from nearby Libertyville, Illinois. His only other Power 5 offer was from Iowa, but at Northwestern he’s caught many more passes (46) than the other top two pass catchers behind him combined. He has only one touchdown to show for it though, as Northwestern’s big play abilities through the air are severely limited.
Overall, this offense is terrible, and no player on it should really concern the Illini defense. The execution has not been there all season. It’s been a total disaster. All of that said, Lees is the go-to target for a passing offense that flat out stinks.
The Defense on the other hand is very, very good
Senior defensive end Joe Gaziano. Junior linebacker Paddy Fisher. Those two are future NFL players and both have had extremely productive careers playing for the Wildcats. They have terrorized the Illini in seasons past, and they hope to finish their careers with clean sweeps over their rivals.
It’s not just those two guys, either. Northwestern is experienced in all three phases of the defense. Blake Gallagher is another guy who’s a tackling machine — he led the Big Ten in tackles a season ago with 127 and he’s already at 83 total tackles mark.
This front-seven is as good as Michigan State’s and Iowa’s, and the only reason Northwestern is not the worst team in the Power 5 is because of this defense. Northwestern has just two wins on the season, and it’s unfathomable to think how much worse they’d be if this defense was an average to below-average defense.
Even as a true freshman, Paddy Fisher was the heart and soul of this unit at the middle linebacker position. His numbers have dipped a tiny bit in 2019, and he if wants to, he could end up coming back for his senior year in 2020.
There are others who are experienced and key contributors such as defensive end Samdup Miller, cornerback Trae Williams and safeties Travis Whilock and JR Pace — those guys have all started a ton of games and work well together under coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s defense.
Special Teams Notes
Illinois has to be wary of the blocked field goal
Wildcats special teamer Chris Bergin scored an 85-yard touchdown off of a blocked field goal two weeks ago against UMass.
The UMass Minutemen are atrocious, no doubt about it — but Illinois Special Teams Coordinator Bob Ligashesky has to review this play in his preparation, and reenforce blocking assignments to his players on field goals and extra point attempts. Rivalry games tend to provide some wacky, momentum swinging plays. A blocked field goal or extra point could swing momentum the wrong way in a highly emotional game.
Kicker is decent
Northwestern’s kicker has been solid. Junior Charlie Kuhbander has been better this season than last season, making all of his extra points and converting 9/12 field goal attempts. He has not had to attempt more than a single field goal in a game since Northwestern lost to Nebraska in Lincoln well over a month ago.
Side note: Do not overreact to the crowd (or lack thereof) at this game
This is Thanksgiving break. I consider myself (and I assume most of our readers are) diehard fans of the Illinois Fighting Illini. This might seem preposterous — HOW DARE YOU NOT SUPPORT YOUR ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI ON ITS LAST HOME GAME OF THE SEASON. Most students go home for the break and come back on Sunday before classes resume on Monday. Some will come back on Friday night with the purpose of attending the Northwestern vs Illinois game, but most will not.
I think it’s only right to exercise some patience and understanding when it comes to judging the crowd size come Saturday morning. This is an awkward situation at an awkward time, where Champaign’s relatively remote campus (Chicago and St. Louis are both hours away) makes it challenging for students to get back in time for the game coming off of a family-fused holiday. AND no, this game is not better off being in Chicago at Soldier Field — closer to Northwestern’s campus.
Just take a deep breath and support the team and the seniors from your TV.
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.