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
Predicting the 2018 Illinois Fighting Illini season game-by-game
We’re nearing game week and that means it is time to gather all the intel possible and make the best decisions possible…because it’s time to put our money where our mouths are.
Yes, the annual tradition of Illinois Fighting Illini season predictions is back. Yes, we’re also going to break down the season in game-by-game fashion.
No, you won’t see it in the written form. Instead, we’re going 21st century and giving you our publisher, Andrew Coppens, thoughts in video format.
The Illini went first (no coincidence to alphabetical order), so you can follow along by subscribing to our YouTube channel as well.
Illini look to fresh jerseys to help reboot football program
Illinois reaches to its successful past in hopes of sparking interest in struggling football program of today. It means new uniforms for the football program.
Nothing says trying to shed a bad image like rebooting your jersey and helmet looks. When you’re the Illinois Fighting Illini and you’ve compiled a whopping 5-19 overall record and just two Big Ten wins in the last two years, a reboot is probably a good idea.
On Friday morning, the Illini announced exactly that, keeping the school colors and even the Gray Ghost uniforms they have worn to pay homage to the Galloping Ghost himself, Harold “Red” Grange. The new uniforms feature a much simpler look and a more defined block “I” on the v of the neck.
For you old-timers out there, these uniforms are likely to look very familiar to you. That’s because they harken back to the Illini glory days of the Dick Butkus era in the 1960’s.
One of the biggest additions to the uniform combinations is that of a re-designed orange helmet. Gone is the metallic look, replaced by a matted finish and a color that more accurately fits the uniform color as well.
Illinois will begin wearing the new gear for the home opener on Sept. 1 against Kent State and of course will begin to be available for purchase (blue only apparently) this fall as well.
As for the design, I like the simplified look and feel of the jersey. Illinois has a color scheme that stands out in the Big Ten, so why try to hide it. Instead, they are embracing history and moving forward to hopefully more success.
With all the momentum off the field, hopefully Love Smith and crew can deliver some of that same momentum on the field. We’ll have an idea about that when the Illini hold an open practice tomorrow, April 7.
Lovie Smith hits home run with Rod Smith’s hire as OC
Lovie Smith hires prolific spread offensive coordinator Rod Smith in hopes of jump-starting a stagnant Illinois Fighting Illini offense.
Just one day after two former starting quarterbacks announced their departure from the Illinois Fighting Illini program, the Illini went out and announced a huge hire.
On Friday afternoon, head coach Lovie Smith announced the hire of former Arizona offensive coordinator to the same position for the Illini.
“Rod Smith brings terrific and exciting offensive experience to our staff at Illinois,” Lovie Smith said. “His background and development of dual-threat quarterbacks and multiple-threat offenses is the direction we are going here. Rod has developed explosive quarterback play and offensive performance at each of his coaching stops.”
It was huge get for the head coach because Cam Thomas, who is a true dual threat quarterback is literally the only scholarship quarterback on the roster until the fall.
Smith comes to Illinois after leading one of the most explosive offenses in the country at Arizona. Smith helped lead an offense that averaged 41.3 points (5th nationally), 309.3 rushing yards, 180.2 passing yards and 489.5 total yards (12th nationally) per game. Wildcat quarterback Khalil Tate rushed for 1,411 yards (9.2 yards per carry), while completing 62 percent of his passes for 1,591 passing yards with 14 touchdowns.
Most importantly, Smith has an extensive background as a quarterbacks coach, and that background will be tested by the rawness of Cam Thomas’ game and two incoming recruits this fall.
He’s had success not just with one quarterback in the fold at Arizona as well, working with Anu Solomon for three seasons prior to Tate taking over at quarterback. Solomon completed his three-year playing career with the third-most passing touchdowns and fourth-most passing yards in UA history. In 2014, Solomon threw for 2,793 yards and 28 touchdowns, with only nine interceptions.
That kind of production and long-term output at quarterback is sorely needed for the Illini to turn things around. Just how fast can Smith mold Thomas? He’ll get a really good opportunity with a cleared quarterback room this spring.
Illini have no choice but Cam Thomas at QB now
Two quarterbacks announce transfers within a matter of hours on Wednesday, leaving the Illini with only Cam Thomas on scholarship.
The Illinois Fighting Illini went in to this offseason with three quarterbacks who started games in 2017. It took just one day for that to completely change though.
On Wednesday night, redshirt junior quarterback Jeff George Jr. announced he would be graduating in the spring with a degree in Management and will transfer from the program as a graduate transfer. He will have two seasons of eligibility left wherever she goes.
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” – Jeremiah 29:11 pic.twitter.com/of61WXyUtK
— Jeff George Jr (@jgeorgeqb) January 17, 2018
Chayce Crouch then announced that he was retiring from football period after an injury-riddled career at Illinois.
Thank you Illini Nation! I will always bleed Orange and Blue 🔶🔷 pic.twitter.com/Gl78tfH46Q
— Chayce Crouch (@teccrouch7) January 17, 2018
So, what was once a potentially three-man race for the starting quarterback job just became a one-man race and the winner by default is sophomore quarterback Cam Thomas.
He’ll have a lot of work to do this offseason though, because his opening campaign was a rough one on the stat sheet. Thomas completed just 42.4 percent of his passes (28 of 66) for 375 yards and zero touchdowns to five interceptions.
In four games he also rushed for 233 yards and a touchdown. Thomas was clearly much more comfortable as a runner than a thrower in the Big Ten.
The question is, will the lessons learned in those four games as a starter be enough to push him in to being the guy that turns things around for the stagnant Illini offense.
Thomas is easily the leader in the clubhouse given he’s the only quarterback on the roster with any experience, but he will be joined in the fall by 2018 signee M.J. Rivers. He is a 6-4, 213-pound dual threat quarterback that was ranked as the No. 26 dual threat QB in the country.
It means the Illini will go in to spring ball with just one scholarship quarterback on the roster and in to the 2018 season with just two scholarship quarterbacks at all.
Lovie Smith now has to trust in Thomas and pray he’s the answer they’ve been looking for or it may be curtains for his time at the helm of the Illini program.