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Illinois needs to go back to what worked

The Illini can cap off a great season on Saturday with a win to secure the HAT.

Illinois v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Illinois’ matchup with the Northwestern Wildcats may seem to be somewhat devoid of meaning at first glance: the Illini are already bowl eligible with seven wins, and the Wildcats have long ago lost any hope of even getting to five wins and a possible bowl opportunity through APR. But at least for the Illini, taking the HAT gives Bret Bielema a chance to end the regular season on a high note and move into bowl preparations with momentum. And, of course, an 8-win team is more likely to get picked by a higher quality bowl than a 7-win team.

Although the odds are long, an Illini win on Saturday also keeps alive Illinois’ hopes for a Big Ten West title, but that would require wins by both Nebraska over Iowa and Indiana over Purdue.

Meanwhile, on the other sideline at Ryan Field, Northwestern is a program in freefall. After a Big Ten West title in 2020, the Cats are now just 4-19 (2-15) since the beginning of the 2021 season. This sets the stage for Northwestern to potentially break out of its frustrating season in an attempt to manage one last win on their senior day. That makes it incumbent on the Illini to…

Control the Tempo Throughout the Game

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Illinois has everything it needs to bottle up Northwestern’s offense and rack up points on its depleted defense. Northwestern has had issues at the quarterback position all year, so Devon Witherspoon and the Illini secondary should be able to easily take advantage if the Cats decide to take to the air. Equally, Keith Randolph, Gabe Jacas, and Johnny Newton will be ready to contain the Wildcats on the ground.

The Illini have the advantage at virtually every position group, and they should be able to cruise into a win as long as they stay focused, bring intensity, and don’t allow Northwestern chances to break out. This requires Illinois to minimize turnovers and prevent big plays by the Wildcat offense.

The other main way to control the game will be to make sure that Chase Brown, Illinois’ top playmaker, has every opportunity to rack up rushing yards and eat up the clock. With that in mind, I would hope Barry Lunney has every intention to…

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NCAA Football: Player Headshots 2022 Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

It almost goes without saying at this point, but Illinois will have its best chance to win on Saturday if its offense can keep the ball on the ground and in the hands of its top rusher. A focus on the rush game may be the best route to a victory for the Illini, but it does have wider implications as well.

Chase Brown has the opportunity to break Illinois’ single season rushing record if he can manage at least 116 yards on the ground between the matchup against Northwestern and the bowl game. Getting him the record before the bowl game would be outstanding, but additional all-purpose yards would also add to Brown’s chances of winning the Doak Walker Award as well.

This season may not end up resulting in 10 or 11 wins like we thought just a few weeks ago, but there’s still so much to play for and it all hinges on a earning a win on Saturday. For far too long, it’s been Northwestern fighting for improved bowl position and a chance at a West Division title against the Illini in the final game of the season. It’s so nice to finally have the tables turned in Illinois’ favor.