When: Sat. Nov. 26, 2016; 12 p.m. ET
Where: Evanston, Ill.; Ryan Field (47,130)
All-Time Series: Illinois leads 55-49-5
Last Meeting: Northwestern won 24-14 (2015)
Line: Northwestern (-15.5)
The last time Northwestern needed a win in its final game to reach bowl eligibility ended up being Trevor Siemian’s last game at Northwestern. Actually, the current Denver Broncos quarterback did not play that game, having torn his ACL the week before against Purdue.
The Wildcats had to rely on backup quarterbacks to try and lead them to victory and the energy — especially considering the students are home for the annual rivalry game and Illini fans invaded Ryan Field as opponents are want to do at the Cats’ home — was just not there. The Wildcats fell behind big early, came back and then fell apart again, ending a disappointing season a game short.
Illinois walked off the field with that coveted sixth win, saving Tim Beckman’s job for at least one more year.
Northwestern’s season started with that lack of energy and bitter disappointment. Going 0-2 put the team in a big hole. But here the Wildcats are — a win from bowl eligibility needing to beat their (struggling) archrivals to clinch that coveted bowl trip and salvage something from a season that has been equal parts frustrating and exhilarating.
And Illinois is getting served to them on something of a platter.
The Illini have struggled on both ends of the field. They have lacked the same scoring punch Illinois fans have been known for the last few years. Lovie Smith has struggled to shift the team’s mentality this year.
Illinois has lost much of its offensive punch, averaging fewer than 20 points per game. But the Illini can still put some yards on the board against a defense that is unprepared.
Rivalry games have a way of changing the equation, though. And anything may go when the teams meet at Ryan Field this time around.
1 Burning Question: Can Northwestern attack without Austin Carr?
Clayton Thorson has had an up-and-down sophomore campaign for the Wildcats. He is unquestionably the team’s quarterback moving forward, but his distribution has been inconsistent at best. His accuracy has come and gone throughout the year.
Thorson at times looks like a stud quarterback, able to make throws into tight windows and accurately across the field. And then at other times he skips passes underneath.
For Thorson, his security blanket in Austin Carr has bailed him out of so many issues. Unfortunately for Northwestern, it’s not a sure thing the team will have him this weekend after he took a nasty hit (called targeting) and left the game.
Pat Fitzgerald said during his Monday press conference that Carr is day to day with a further update coming Thursday. Assumedly he is in whatever concussion protocol Northwestern has.
Fitz on Austin Carr: "He's feeling good. I'd probably list him as day-to-day, but we'll give an official update on Thursday."
— Inside NU (@insidenu) November 21, 2016
Carr has 80 catches for 1,170 yards this season, including 12 touchdowns. He averages more than 100 yards receiving per game. Thorson looks to Carr even when he is not open and Carr somehow makes the catch.
How will Northwestern’s offense look without that safety valve? That is a big question if he is unable to go.
The Wildcats have some other solid receivers — Andrew Scanlan, Solomon Vault and even Justin Jackson have found a niche in the pass game. But Carr is the one that makes it all go.
2 Key Stats
–213.8: Illinois gives up 213.8 rushing yards per game this year as the team’s defense has really struggled. Northwestern is a big running team though. Justin Jackson has made a living wearing down and breaking down defenses in the long course of a game. The Illini will have to decrease this number to have a shot against Northwestern.
— -6.2: Northwestern’s net yards per game is 6.2 yards per game. Teams are outgaining the Wildcats on a per game basis, which is odd considering the team’s defensive solidity this season and some of the offensive strengths the team began to show.
3 Key Players
Malik Turner, Illinois WR: Northwestern’s secondary has struggled at time this year. Injuries have certainly depleted the group talent wise. And so the Wildcats are always on guard against a big passing game. Even with the Illini’s passing troubles, Turner is a dangerous weapon with 37 catches for 548 yards and four touchdowns this season.
Flynn Nagel, Northwestern WR/PR: Flynn Nagel has not had a big break in the punt game since the Iowa game. Teams know to avoid the speedster. With Austin Carr likely hampered, at least a little bit, Northwestern is going to want to get Nagel the ball more in space to run and cause havoc in the secondary. Punt to Nagel at your own risk too.
Carroll Phillips, Illinois DE: Northwestern’s biggest weakness at this point is the offensive line. Whenever Clayton Thorson has struggled, it is because the offensive line does not give him enough time to throw or he is getting chased around. The Illini will need to get a good pass rush and Phillips has done that with eight sacks and 17.0 tackles for a loss.
4 Staff Predictions
Andy: Northwestern 38-10
Dave: Northwestern 34-7
Phil H.: Northwestern 32-17
Philip R.: Northwestern 28-10
Zach: Northwestern 28-10