Lowes Line


Illinois Preview and Prediction

By Eric Cockerill

Matchup: #19 Northwestern Wildcats (7-4, 7-1 B1G WEST CHAMPIONS!!!) vs Illinois Illini (4-7, 2-6 B1G)
Date: Saturday, November 24, 2:30 p.m. CST
Line: Northwestern (-17); ESPN FPI: NU 92.1% chance to win; O/U 58.0

Last Week’s Review

I bet if you asked Fitzgerald, last week’s game was extremely satisfying.  The Gophers are unpredictable, but certainly dangerous.  However, the Cats looked in control and steady throughout the game.  Zero turnovers for the Cats, while taking the ball away three times is certainly in the Cat game plan each week.  Again aided by a stout run defense and serviceable, if unspectacular run game, Thorson was able to avoid mistakes and let NU’s superior personnel wear down the Gophers for a final score of 24 to 14.  That takes the Cats’ record to 7-4 overall with an excellent chance of getting to 8 wins before the Big Ten Championship game.  Certainly not the outcome that we expected after the losses to Duke and Akron at the start of the season.
At this point, it’s apparent that the team has improved from the beginning of the year and the coaching staff has discovered the formula that gives them a good chance to win each week.  On offense, Thorson can be inconsistent in terms of accuracy, but his knee has healed to the point where he is again a threat to run and can certainly win (or lose) games with his arm.  Frankly, NU could probably score more points by relying on a more aggressive air attack, but against comparable or worse opponents, Fitz just isn’t willing to take those risks.  The running game is fairly one dimensional with only runs between the tackles effective with results that are pedestrian, but good enough to allow the offense to put consistent pressure on opposing defenses.  I have no stats to back it up (food coma to blame), but clearly the specter of three-and-outs are greatly reduced over the recent run of success.
On defense, the strength is against the run.  Without a doubt, that strength has created major problems for all their opponents so far and a major reason for their success. The pass defense is much less consistent with a pass rush that is MIA for long stretches and a medium to long pass defense that, honestly, is cause for anxiety.  Like the run offense, the pass defense is just good enough to cause takeaways when needed.
Next Up, the Illini

Illinois continues to make steady progress under head coach Lovie “Grizzly Adams” Smith, though slower than hoped by their fan base.  On the season, the Illini have won four games against inferior or similar teams in terms of talent level, but also lost a few games they could have won (Nebraska and Maryland) and been blown out several times, including a 63-0 shellacking by Iowa last week.  Those embarrassing losses in particular have the alumni and local press actively questioning how much longer Smith will have to turn things around.
On offense, the Illini are markedly reliant on a single strength, but it’s a good one.  Their running game is extremely impressive with mark of 6 yards per carry.  In particular, good production from Reggie Corbin and contributions from quarterback Al Bush Jr lead that attack.  Their passing attack leaves much more to be desired and is considered a significant weakness.  Bush Jr. tends to pull down the ball to run at the slightest pressure and is not particularly accurate even on a good day.  Still, the Illini are able to put up large scoring numbers even when reliant on the running game, especially against weaker defenses.
On defense, there are no strengths to speak of.  They are giving up over 40 points per game.  Both rushing and passing defenses are equally putrid.  Remember when I said Illinois gains 6 ypg running?  They also give up 6 ypg.  The Illini can score a lot of points, but they have to because they give up a lot of points.  The only good thing is the team will continue to improve.  This year’s team starts only a handful of seniors…the last class left over from the previous coaching fiasco.
What to Expect:

One could say this is another chance at a trap game for NU, but Illinois just isn’t good enough to really to make good on that opportunity.   Plus, last week’s game suggests the Illinois team may have written off another lost season.  The key for the Cats will be to slow down the Illini running game.  The biggest concern may actually be Al Bush Jr, as the Cats have a habit of giving up big running plays to QBs (think of the Notre Dame game).  However, assuming the Cats slow them down at bit, expect the easier sledding on offense to put too much pressure on Illinois’s offense.

Pick: Northwestern 31, Illinois 21.  Fitz is never one to run up the score given his intense desire to protect the football.  Watch for some tense moments in the first half as the Illini have some success running against NU, but once they fall behind and have to throw more, it’s all over.  Cats win, but don’t cover due to conservative playcalling.

Season to Date
Straight Up: 6-5; Against the Spread:  9-2.


The Lowes Line is an e-mailed description of NU's next football game, with an invariably fearless prediction of the outcome and how NU will fare against what the other "experts" predict.  Our good friend and Brother Marcus Lowes began the broadcast mailing in 1996.  The crack Lowes Line Staff (alumni Jersey Cat, GallopingGrapes, P.S. O'Briant, Eric Cockerill, Joel Kanvik, Charlie Simon, and MO'Cats) have continued the Line in memory of Marcus.  For the 2018 season it has returned to HailToPurple.com, for anyone to enjoy.  Thanks to the gridiron brain trust at the Lowes Line!