No. 22 Northwestern faces overmatched Illinois
For Northwestern, it’s a chance to wrap up the regular season with a seven-game winning streak and position itself for a nice bowl bid.
For Illinois, it is a chance to avoid a 10-loss season and go into the offseason with something positive.
The in-state Big Ten Conference rivals meet Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill., and the direction each is headed couldn’t be more opposite.
While the No. 22 Wildcats (8-3, 6-2 Big Ten) are certainly playing their best football, the Fighting Illini (2-9, 0-8) have been wiped out by a perfect storm of injuries, inexperience and ineptitude. It all came together in the worst possible way last week at Ohio State, which won 52-14.
At one point in the third quarter, the Illini had one first down to the Buckeyes’ 24. A late surge offensively enabled Illinois to finish the rainy day with 105 total yards.
“You want to see your team keep fighting,” second-year Illini coach Lovie Smith said. “You want to see big steps, but we’ve taken small steps throughout. It all comes out to this game. There’s one more, no tomorrow.”
Illinois hasn’t scored more than 24 points in a game this year, largely because Smith has gone all-in and then some on a youth movement. The Illini have started 16 freshmen, including four at times on the offensive line, which many coaches believe is the toughest play for a frosh to step in and play right away.
Mix in a revolving door at quarterback — three different starters, four different players have taken snaps this year — and injuries that have taken the team’s top rushing and receiving threats out of the lineup, and what you have is an offense that does well to get first downs.
The season’s worth of evidence aside, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald sees growth in Illinois.
“You see a lot of young talent, and you see a lot of seniors and older guys playing hard,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s just a lot of new faces out there every game. I thought they’ve have an opportunity to win games, they’ve just fallen on the short end.”
Smith is hopeful that he could get freshman Cam Thomas (ankle/head) and sophomore Jeff George, Jr. (hand) back at quarterback for the season finale. Chayce Crouch, who started the first four games before moving to tight end when it became apparent he couldn’t throw the ball well enough to handle the position, had to move back under center last week at Ohio State.
While the Illini are just trying to piece things together play-by-play to finish out a dreadful year, the Wildcats have found their identity. Offensively, they use the tough running of Justin Jackson to set up Clayton Thorsen’s passing, and their defense revolves around stopping the run.
In last week’s 39-0 rout of Minnesota, Jackson pounded out 166 yards on 31 carries, enabling him to join Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne as the only players in Big Ten history with four straight 1,000-yard seasons. Thorsen didn’t throw much because of snowy conditions and the one-sided score, but was efficient, throwing for 86 yards and three touchdowns.
Not to be outdone, the defense forced five turnovers and bagged six sacks while allowing the Golden Gophers a measly seven first downs and 182 total yards.
“I think we dominated both sides of the line of scrimmages as well as we have maybe in any game in a long time,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought that guys prepared the right way and then obviously started the game the way we needed to.”
Thorsen has completed 60.5 percent of his passes this year for 2,669 yards, spreading the wealth. Five players have caught between 32 and 42 balls for Northwestern, while three others have hauled in at least 10 passes.
The Wildcats are yielding just over 112 yards per game on the ground. Illinois is barely gaining more than 100 per game, and that’s only gone downhill as the team has lost confidence and manpower. The season-ending injury in early October to freshman Mike Epstein has affected the Illini’s ability to sustain drives.
But with just one game left and nothing to save, expect Illinois to save nothing. That could be an interesting X factor, especially if it can give itself the proverbial puncher’s chance.
“After last week’s effort, we can’t wait to get back on the football field,” Smith said. “Northwestern week is here and we can’t wait to play.”