We asked beat writer Marcus Jackson to break down Saturday's 11 a.m. start in Evanston:"
Can we expect much from Nathan Scheelhaase?
It’s been a rough season for the junior quarterback, but he might welcome seeing purple on the other side of the line of scrimmage. In last year’s come-from-behind win against the Wildcats, Scheelhaase engineered a memorable comeback against Northwestern last season that improved the Illini to 5-0. In two career games against Northwestern, both wins, Scheelhaase is averaging 281.5 yards of total offense with five touchdowns.
How intense is the rivalry?
Illinois fans long hated to consider Northwestern a true rival, but the reality is, the ‘Cats have won enough in recent years to make it legitimate. Northwestern has won six of the last nine in this series and first-year Illinois coach Time Beckman livened things up his first day on the job referring to NU as “the team upstate”. Beckman has been a part of some of the sports best rivalries (Ohio State-Michigan, Oklahoma State-Oklahoma) and he wants to see this one reach those levels.
What does Illinois gain by winning?
Finishing the seaosn 3-9 doesn’t sound a whole lot better than 2-10 but when you’re going through those grueling, early morning workouts for the next nine months coming off a win, that makes things a whole lot easier. A win against your rival, with a trophy on the line, makes it all the more enjoyable. “It’s huge. You say you’re only as good as your last game. It’s a very, very important football game,” Beckman said.
Can the Illini slow Northwestern’s offense?
Early in the season, Illinois struggled against teams that favored an up-tempo style of offense. The Illini also struggled against the more deliberate offenses, too. The defense has shown improvement the last two weeks, but the ‘Cats, who average 394 yards of total offense, will keep them off balance by mixing speeds. It’ll be a unique challenge for the Illini. Dual-threat Kain Colter is the main guy at quarterback, but Trevor Siemian doesn’t miss a beat when he comes in relief. Through the air, the Illini have been fine, giving up less than 200 passing yards each of the last two weeks. Control the ground game, and they’ll have a chance.
When was the last time the Illini went winless in the Big Ten?
It wasn’t that long ago. A loss today would send Illinois into the offseason with an 0-8 mark in the Big Ten. The last time that was done was 2005, Ron Zook’s first season when the Illini went 2-9 overall. Illinois lost its Big Ten opener the following year before winning on the road at Michigan State, their only conference win during a 2-6 campaign.