Northwestern looks to continue rolling, end Illinois' bowl chances
Who: Illinois vs. No. 16 Northwestern
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Soldier Field, Chicago
Spread: Northwestern -3.5
Matchup to watch: Anthony Walker vs. Wes Lunt
Walker wasn’t kind to Joel Stave last week. He really hasn’t been kind to many quarterbacks all season. He can rush their throws, put them on their backs and cover their open receivers. Those are pretty solid characteristics to have as a sophomore linebacker. Against a pocket passer like Lunt, Walker will look to repeat his performance that he had against Wisconsin. The difference with Illinois, however, is the presence of a pass-catching back like Josh Ferguson. Will that freeze Walker and give Lunt a little more time? If the Illini offense has any say in the matter, it will.
Thing I’m excited to see: College football at Soldier Field
How this game didn’t happen sooner is beyond me. One of the great outdoor venues in the country will finally host the two biggest programs in the state of Illinois. For whatever reason, Northern Illinois was the only school that took advantage of having a game at Soldier Field. It’s hard to believe, but college football in the city of Chicago is very much second fiddle. Or fifth fiddle. Both of these programs need a game like this to grow their following in one of the country’s biggest markets. Both programs have been criticized in the past for not recruiting well enough in the city of Chicago. It’s only one game, but for both programs, it’s a much grander stage than a typical home game in front of 35,000 people. Whether it’s Wrigley Field or Soldier Field, both of these teams would be wise to capitalize on a prime opportunity.
Number to remember: 29-147
Those are the carries and yardage Justin Jackson averaged in his last three games. Any concern that he was trending downward following his midseason lull is gone. Pat Fitzgerald made it a point to get the sophomore tailback involved early and often, which is why Northwestern is riding its second four-game winning streak of the season. Illinois, however, is coming off a game in which it allowed true freshman Shannon Brooks to rack up 174 yards and three scores. Illinois has to make Clayton Thorson beat them. It’ll be up to T.J. Neal Jr. and Mason Monheim to make sure that Jackson doesn’t break off big chunks of yardage on first down. Northwestern isn’t a team that can operate with a one-dimensional offense. Illinois would be in prime position if it could limit Jackson’s usage.
Prediction: Illinois 24, Northwestern 21
I’m going to stick by my upset pick of a couple weeks ago. To be fair, I think Northwestern is the better team. I don’t want to discount what the Wildcats have done as one of the top surprise teams in the country. But I just have a feeling that with Ke’Shawn Vaughn back, this offense gets the balance that it needs. Northwestern teed off on teams like Stanford and Wisconsin because they tried to beat them with one dimension. Illinois’ offense, I believe, will establish more balance than it’s had all year. I think Lunt delivers the quality win Illini fans have been waiting for all year and Bill Cubit solidifies his case by clinching a bowl berth.