The Illini (2-4) travel to Evanston to battle Northwestern this Saturday (11 a.m. CT, ESPN 2).
The Wildcats come into this game with a 5-1 record having already clinched a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game as the Big Ten West champion. Meanwhile, the Illini come into this one with a 2-4 record in a type of purgatory season that makes it hard to argue that Lovie should be dismissed off-hand, and yet, the type of season that inspires little confidence in Lovie’s ability to get the Illini out of the bottom of the pack in the Big Ten.
In general, this end of the season rivalry has caused the llini great grief since Lovie, who is 0-4 against Northwestern, arrived in Champaign — and for most of the post-Ron Zook era.
Even in 2019, when Illinois appeared to be the superior team coming in, Northwestern managed to physically manhandle the Illini en route to a 29-10 victory in Champaign.
So, given Lovie’s issues against the Wildcats who have been the standard bearer in the Big Ten West two of the last three years, this weekend’s matchup is as measuring stick as it gets for what Lovie has built his first 5 years in Champaign.
Here’s what Illini should expect from Northwestern.
The Wildcats’ offense has gone from bottom of the Big Ten in 2019 to middle of the pack in 2020. The improvement can be attributed to former Indiana graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey and new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, who served in the same role at Boston College in 2019 and, prior to that, was quarterback coach for Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When we you add in a power run game with running backs Drake Anderson Isaiah Bowser, the Wildcats have a near-perfect complement to their defense.
So far this season, Ramsey has thrown for 1,136 yard and 8 touchdown passes while rushing for 122 rushing yards and 2 rushing touchdowns. More importantly, he’s the steady hand Northwestern sorely lacked last year.
Northwestern’s run game is led by the combination of Bower and Anderson, who have two touchdowns each on the season.
In terms of coaching and scheme, Bajakian has crafted an offense that not only adapted scheme to talent but also plays into Northwestern’s physical style and complements the defense. Bajakian uses pre-snap motions, shifts, and the jet sweep to force a defense to reveal itself pre-snap thereby allowing Ramsey to anticipate coverage.
Northwestern’s defense relies on a stingy secondary that has intercepted 12 passes while only giving up 6 touchdown passes.
Redshirt Freshman Brandon Joseph has proven to ball hawk with 5 interception thus far in 2020.
Senior linebacker Blake Gallagher leads the Wildcats’ defense with 8.5 tackles-for-loss and 59 total tackles.
Northwestern’s standouts on special teams’ are kicker Charlie Kuhbander who is 8-of-10 on field goals and punter Derek Adams, who has punted 34 times with an average of 41.2 yards per punt.