Beat writer SCOTT RICHEY breaks down five hot topics ahead of the 11 a.m. kickoff against Northwestern:
No Kevin Kugler or Matt Millen for this broadcast. Although after Illinois lost at Iowa last week with that duo working for BTN, maybe their string of bringing some good luck ended. Saturday’s game will be on Fox Sports 1 with Chris Fosters (play-by-play) and former Kansas State linebacker Ben Leber (analysis) on the call. Illinois coach Lovie Smith, meanwhile, isn’t buying too much into the idea of a role reversal Saturday compared to last year’s game against the Big Ten West champion Wildcats. “I think last year, all we were trying to do was win a football game and get a bad taste out of our mouths,” Smith said. “Northwestern had a good season going. It was no more than that.”
Northwestern has remained one of the better defenses in the country this season. The Wildcats rank 36th nationally, giving up 351.6 yards per game. That still only puts them ninth in the conference because, well, the Big Ten’s got some stingy defenses. What’s held Northwestern back, though, is its offense. Now on their fourth quarterback, the Wildcats rank 127th (of 130 teams) in passing offense. The run game is better at No. 65, but, cumulatively, they’re ranked No. 127 in total offense. Notably, the 45 points Northwestern scored in beating UMass two weeks ago accounts for more than a quarter of their total production this season.
Illinois still has to face Northwestern on Saturday. But the Illini are also looking forward to the extra work next month in 15 bowl game practices. “That’s huge,” Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. “We haven’t been able to take advantage of that the last several years. That’s huge for us to be able to get Isaiah Williams, Kyron Cumby, all those young guys who maybe aren’t getting quite as many reps as they could be. It’s huge for the continued development of our program.”
The turnover battle went against Illinois last Saturday at Iowa. The Illini, in fact, had three times as many turnovers as the Hawkeyes. For a team that leads the nation with 27 takeaways, not doing so meant less of a margin for error. Lovie Smith, of course, is still emphasizing takeaways on defense and ball security on offense, but that’s just part of the equation. Running the ball and stopping the run are important. So is limiting explosive plays. “There’s a lot of things that go into it,” Smith said. “Most of the things that we need to do to win a football game, we didn’t do those this past week. We’ll get back on track.”
Predicting the future
The line for Saturday’s game has fluctuated this week to where Illinois is only just more than a touchdown favorite. The uncertain status of quarterback Brandon Peters creates some questions even if Matt Robinson led a near comeback against Michigan. Given the Illini’s defensive track record, however, multiple takeaways are at least more likely than the one they got last week in Iowa City. Given Northwestern’s serious offensive issues, the Illinois defense will probably lead the way again in the regular season finale at Memorial Stadium.
Illini 28, Wildcats 13