Illinois looks to end skid vs. No. 14 Northwestern
Illinois will visit No. 14 Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., on Saturday with the hopes of winning back the Land of Lincoln Trophy for the first time since 2014.
The Wildcats’ five-game winning streak in the rivalry is the longest such streak Northwestern has ever held in the series. Last season, the Wildcats retained the trophy with a 29-10 victory on a rainy day in Champaign, Ill.
“It’s been up north for too long,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “Our guys will be pumped up and ready to go. We plan on playing our best game we’ve played all year.”
One year ago, the Wildcats entered the game winless in Big Ten play and at the bottom of the West Division standings. Now, Northwestern (5-1, 5-1) already has clinched the division and a spot in the Big Ten title game week against an opponent to be determined.
The Wildcats clinched on Saturday despite their game against Minnesota being canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the Golden Gophers’ program.
The division title is the second in three years for Northwestern, as the program will become one of four teams in the conference to make the championship game multiple times since its creation in 2011.
“Sometimes Northwestern is portrayed this way or that way, having these type of athletes or those type of athletes,” the Wildcats’ Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman said. “But at the end of the day we’re coming to play, we’re coming to win the West, we’re coming to win a Big Ten championship.”
The hallmark of the Wildcats this season has been their defense — they are sixth in the country in points allowed per game at an average of 15.3. They also have held opponents to 322.5 total yards per game, 15th-best in the country.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said he believes turnover margin has been a huge determiner of his team’s success. The Wildcats have forced 18 turnovers this season.
“I’ll go back to a lot of our games; I think it has a lot to do with turnovers and then points off of turnovers,” Fitzgerald said. “I think that has been key in most, if not all, of these games.”
The Fighting Illini (2-4, 2-4) are coming off a 35-21 loss to Iowa. Illinois jumped to a 14-point lead behind two touchdown passes from Brandon Peters, but Iowa responded by scoring 35 straight points.
At the end of the game, backup quarterback Isaiah Williams led the Fighting Illini to their final touchdown.
Smith said “there’s a place” for Williams in the offense, although he also expressed his belief in Peters.
Before the Iowa game, Illinois was on a two-game winning streak after defeating Rutgers and Nebraska.
“If you look at our play, we have a legitimate chance to win each week,” Smith said. “That hasn’t always been the case.”
–Field Level Media