Rivalry Week. Up for grabs is one of the greatest trophies in sports, the HAT.
The Illini are coming off three heartbreaking losses to Purdue, Michigan State, and Michigan. They only have a slight chance to make the Big Ten Championship.
Saying Northwestern has struggled this season is an understatement. They have not won a game in America and have been blown out by almost every opponent.
Let’s preview Northwestern before their matchup.
Season So Far
Northwestern opened their season with a victory as they came back from a 28-17 deficit to beat Nebraska in Ireland. The Wildcats probably hope they could play every game in Ireland, as they have been on a 10-game losing streak in America.
After Nebraska, the Wildcats had embarrassing losses to Duke, Southern Illinois, and Miami (OH). While Northwestern has had some close Big Ten games against Purdue, Ohio State, and Penn State, they have mostly been thoroughly dominated on both sides of the ball.
Northwestern doesn’t have an identity on offense. In some games they’ve relied on their throwing game; in others, their running back receives 60 touches.
They have had the most success in intense weather as they kept it closer against Ohio State in 70+ mph winds and Penn State in heavy rain. The weather is forecasted for rain on Saturday which could help the Wildcats.
Northwestern has started three quarterbacks this season, none finding success against opponents. South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski started the first 6 games of the season. He struggled immensely, only throwing for 6 touchdowns and 1,644 yards. He suffered multiple injuries and has been in the backup role since.
Brendan Sullivan started the next four games for the Wildcats, with an unimpressive stat line of 4 touchdowns and 589 yards. He was injured against Minnesota. Against Purdue, Northwestern started Cole Freeman, who also couldn’t produce offense for the wildcats.
In defense of Northwestern’s Quarterbacks, they have been put into a system with little talent and have been eaten alive by Big Ten defenses. They rank 105th in total offense and have given up 19 sacks. Throughout the season they have relied on trick plays for major gains, which they’ll probably try against Illinois.
The Northwestern offense begins and ends with running back Evan Hull, a physical runner who also plays a role in the passing game. He has had 201 attempts for 860 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Northwestern has trouble getting him the ball unless it is a handoff. This would allow them to create more big plays on offense. Stopping Northwestern’s run game will be crucial for the Illini.
Northwestern’s wide receiver room has struggled this season, only catching 10 passing touchdowns.
Its leading receiver is Malik Washington, who has 58 receptions for 638 yards. The second biggest threat for Northwestern is actually running back Evan Hull, who has 513 receiving yards.
The Illini will play man defense, putting as many men as possible in the box, forcing Northwestern to throw the ball to gain yards.
The Wildcats have had an especially poor season on defense. They rank 116th in run defense and allow 188 rushing yards per game. Defensive Back Cameron Mitchell has 7 pass deflections for the Wildcats, and will be tasked with covering Illinois’ best wide receiver.
Defensive Lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore has also played an important role, having 4 sacks for the Wildcats and playing a big role in defending the run game. Throughout the season, the Wildcats have played Cover 4 offense, allowing passes underneath which leads to defenders coming up and making a tackle.
Illinois will need to take these passes underneath and capitalize on opportunities deep.
So can the Illini win?
On paper, the Illini have a more talented roster than the Wildcats.
While Chase Brown has been suffering through injuries, he was productive against Michigan and is poised to have a big day against Northwestern.
The Illini have come up short in all their losses and have had opportunities to put the game away but couldn’t convert. The Illini will beat the Wildcats due to their superior talent and running game.