It’s been a rough past 3 weeks for the folks in Champaign. Illinois went from B1G West favorite to needing a minor miracle to capture the division entering the final week of the regular season.

An Iowa win over lowly Nebraska on Black Friday ends all hope of Illinois earning a trip to Indy. However, all is not lost for the Fighting Illini. In the midst of their best season since 2007, coach Bret Bielema’s team looks to capture its 8th win, which would be the best mark since the ’07 team went 9-4 and ended its season in the Rose Bowl.

All that stands in the way is a win over in-state rival Northwestern in Evanston. The teams will compete for the Land of Lincoln Trophy. The Wildcats have had the upper hand, winning in 8 of the past 10 years. But the Illini bludgeoned Northwestern 47-14 a year ago in Champaign and now look to keep the trophy a 2nd straight season.

Here are 5 reasons why Illinois will make it 2 wins in a row over the Cats.

1) Suffocating defense

Sure, the Illini defense has hit a bit of a rough patch of late. But don’t be fooled, Ryan Walters’ unit is still very salty. Moving the ball and getting points will be a struggle for the meager Wildcats offense.

On Monday, Walters was named a semifinalist for the Frank Broyles award given to the nation’s top assistant coach.

Look for Illinois to key on Evan Hull and slow down the ground game. Northwestern has had limited success through the air. Making hay against a secondary that includes Devon Witherspoon, Sydney Brown and company looks to be a tall order for Cole Freeman or whomever is under center this week for Northwestern.

After putting up only 9 points against Purdue last Saturday, the Wildcats offense will have its hands full reaching double digits against this stout Illini group.

2) Chase Brown’s brilliance

Chase Brown continues to impress in the backfield. The nation’s leading rusher went for 141 yards and a TD at No. 3 Michigan. He’s been a reliable workhorse each week, and look for OC Barry Lunney Jr. to feed him the ball more on Saturday.

Containing Brown is a big ask of a Northwestern defensive unit ranked near the bottom of the B1G, giving up over 381 yards per game. Look for Brown to add to his 1,582 rushing yards and 10 TDs on the season.

3) Rallying behind Bielema

Coach Bielema’s mother, Marilyn, passed away last week just prior to Illinois’ game at Michigan. Bielema coached in Ann Arbor but his mom’s death hit him hard. Look for his players to rally around their head coach and put forth a strong effort this Saturday.

It’s been one of Bielema’s best-ever coaching jobs. Picked in the preseason to finish 5th or 6th in the West, Bielema’s team has surpassed all the pundits’ expectations. His players know a win in the season-finale trophy game would mean a lot to their coach. Especially with the heartache he’s been through the past week.

4) Tommy DeVito’s ball security

One thing DeVito has done all year is take care of the football. He’s thrown just 3 picks on the entire year.

Sure, Illini fans would have liked to see DeVito take more shots down field. Be more aggressive, and stretch the field with Isaiah Williams and company. But DeVito hasn’t put his team in trouble with ill-advised throws. He’s completing 70% of his passes and has 15 TDs through the air.

In a game where defenses will be on display — like Saturday — DeVito’s solid decision making and ability to manage the game well should favor Illinois.

5) Wildcats’ turnover-prone offense

While DeVito has taken care of the ball for the Illinois offense, Northwestern is losing the turnover battle 24-11 to its opponents on the year.

Wildcats QBs have thrown 12 picks and the offense has lost 12 fumbles. Bad news entering a game against a tenacious Illinois defense that can feast on takeaways.

Illinois has 17 INTs on the season. If the Wildcats get behind, they’ll be forced to throw the ball downfield. Brown and Kendall Smith each have 4 picks. Jartavius Martin has 3. The back end defenders will be licking their chops when Northwestern is forced into 3rd-and long situations.

There’s no reason to think Illinois won’t win the turnover battle. And if it does, that should create some short fields for Brown and the offense.

With Northwestern having gone winless since an Aug. 27 win over Nebraska in Dublin, there’s little reason to think the Cats break through Saturday, especially against a defense as gritty as the Illini bring to the table.