Matchup Preview: Northwestern at Illinois

Matthew Stevens

Northwestern running game vs. Illinois run defense

For one of the first times this season, Redshirt first-year running back Drake Anderson has 547 rushing yards this season, moving him past his father Damien's first-year mark of 537 in 1998. Anderson's 547 yards on the ground are the seventh most by a rookie in NU history. He needs just nine yards to pass Darnell Autry (556; 1994) and 22 to pass Dennis Lundy (568; 1991) to finish his debut campaign in the top five. However, the one who should be watched is true freshman Evan Hull. Hull made the most of his first career start versus Massachusetts by rushing for 220 yards and a program record four touchdowns to earn Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors. Hull's 220 rushing yards were the 13th most in program history and the second most by a first year. Illinois is coming off a game against Iowa where they were more physical and dominant near the line-of-scrimmage to the point where they only allowed 79 yards on 32 carries throughout the 19-10 loss in Iowa City. If Illinois' interior lineman can get off the ball like they have the past month, Northwestern is likely going to have to scheme it up in order to get yards on first down. 

Edge: Illinois

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Northwestern passing game vs. Illinois pass defense

Edge: Sophomore quarterback Andrew Marty finally saw significant playing time for the first time as a Wildcat last week and accounted for three touchdowns versus No. 10 Minnesota after former five-star Hunter Johnson was injured. Marty completed 8-of-10 passes for 95 yards and his first career passing touchdown. He also rushed a career-high 16 times for 52 yards and two touchdowns. The Ohio native is the first NU quarterback with two rushing touchdowns in a game since Clayton Thorson against Notre Dame on Nov. 3, 2018. His three touchdowns overall also are the most since Thorson did so against Illinois last season. “He’s a great young man and young player in our program, just like a lot of guys who are playing right now,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “My hope is he gains confidence through the experience and it’s great fuel and motivation for him as he moves forward in his career.”

It'll be interesting if Marty gets the start vs. Illinois regardless of Johnson's health status and how he'll react to what would be his first career start. In most cases against an inexperienced quarterback, defenses will try to blitz and create pressure but Lovie Smith's philosophy may be to more toward confusing Marty with coverages and allowing his four-man front to create pressure naturally. Also, with constant rain in the forecast, look for Marty's ability to take over on designed runs to be a factor. 

Edge: Illinois

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Illinois running game vs. Northwestern run defense

If Northwestern, which ranks ninth in the Big Ten in rushing defense, has any chance to slow down Illinois' run game led by the final home game for Reggie Corbin and possibly the final home game for Dre Brown, they'll need a huge day from senior defensive tackle Alex Miller. Last week Miller combined with Gaziano on a sack versus the Golden Gophers, bringing his season total to a career-high four. Miller has posted the best season of his career in his final season with the ’Cats, setting career-high marks in solo tackles (19), assisted tackles (22), total tackles (41), tackles for loss (7.5) and sacks (4.0). Iowa leads the nation in allowing run plays of 20 yards or more. Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith's scheme relies on big-yardage plays as tailback Reggie Corbin has had 10 scrimmage plays over 50 yards in his career, all coming against Big Ten competition. Expect a big day from either Brown or Ra'Von Bonner as perimeter runs might be needed to soften up an aggressive but injury-plagued Northwestern defense. 

Edge: Illinois

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Illinois passing game vs. Northwestern pass defense

All signs point toward Brandon Peters being out for this game after the devastating hit he took in Iowa City the previous week. This means Matt Robinson will get his first start since the Michigan game where he finished 16 of 25 for 192 yards and a touchdown. The redshirt freshman also had a pair of turnovers at the end of that game to halt a comeback effort. Robinson is more physically limited in terms of arm talent but if the constant downpour in the weather report comes to fruition, Robinson may just need to be proficient in terms of taking care of the football and running the offense similar to the way Peters led Illinois to victory at Purdue nearly a month ago. In his final game in a Northwestern uniform, Senior defensive end Joe Gaziano will start already with the program's all-time sacks record with 29. Gaziano leads the Wildcats with eight sacks this season, just one shy of his career-high of nine set in 2017.

Edge: Even

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Special teams

Illinois punter Blake Hayes ranks 17th in FBS and second in the B1G in punting average (45.0) and his versatility, whether it’s booming kicks or bouncing rugby-style kicks, have helped the Illini rank 21st in FBS in net punting (41.23 yards per punt). Of Hayes’ 55 punts, 27 have been downed inside the 20, with just two touchbacks. Opponents have scored only 16 points on ensuing drives after Hayes’ punts inside the 20-yard-line and Illinois has scored two defensive touchdowns. Northwestern junior linebacker Chris Bergin was named the Big Ten Co-Special Teams Player of the Week Monday after scoring an 85-yard touchdown on a blocked field goal return and recovering a fumble on a kickoff. Bergin had eight tackles in the contest versus UMass, three of which came on special teams.

Edge: Illinois slightly

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Intangibles

It's Senior Day in Champaign game but this is going to be an emotional pre-game celebration. Saturday will mark the final game at Memorial Stadium for 17 Fighting Illini. Illinois seniors Nolan Bernat, Dre Brown, Reggie Corbin, Trenard Davis, Stanley Green, Dele Harding, Kenyon Jackson, Jamal Milan, Tymir Oliver, Richie Petitbon, Caleb Reams, Bobby Walker and Justice Williams, plus redshirt juniors Kurt Gavin, Brandon Jones, Cam Miller and Griffin Palmer, will be recognized prior to the game. Illinois’ last win in the series was a 47-33 victory in Evanston in 2014. The Illini used 291 yards rushing to reclaim the Land of Lincoln Trophy and with a 47-33 win over Northwestern in the 2014 regular-season finale. Illinois forced five turnovers - three interceptions and two fumbles - and held the Wildcats to 62 yards in the first half.

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PREDICTION

Illinois has already proven they have the plan and skillset on defense to win a wet and chaos-filled game. That's what the weather is likely to provide in Champaign. Look for the Illini to eventually wear down a Northwestern interior defensive front that doesn't have much depth thanks to injuries. Unless Marty is careless with the football, expect Northwestern to make this a competitive game as they've never shown signs of wanting to pack in this season under Fitzgerald yet despite the disappointing outcomes in 2019. 

Illinois 21, Northwestern 7

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