Lowes Line


Illinois Preview and Prediction

By Eric Cockerill

Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (2-9, 0-8) at Illinois Illini (6-5, 4-4)
Date: Saturday, November 30, 2019, 11:00 AM CST
Line: Illinois (-8)
         Over/Under 41.0

Oh, for F***’s sake…we’re going to lose to Illinois.  A whole year of listening to co-workers talk like Illinois hasn’t been a laughing stock for almost a decade.

  • This will be Lovie Smith’s 4th game against NU with no previous wins or ties.
  • Illinois is 3-7 versus NU in their last 10 meetings.
  • Illinois is only 4-4 in the Big Ten this year, but still favored to win by more than a touchdown.
  • Illinois hasn’t had an overall winning record since 2011, or a conference winning record since 2007.
  • In the last decade, Northwestern Bowl Appearances – 8, Illinois – 3
That’s the team we’re about to lose to.  Now, all that being said, we also have to give credit where it’s due.  Head Coach Lovie Smith can produce one helluva beard.

That is impressive.

Last week:  NU lost 38-22 to Minnesota.  The game was effectively over after the first quarter as Minnesota scored on its first three possessions.  Hunter Johnson started for the Wildcats, but left with an apparent injury after going 0-2 and taking three sacks.  How much of that change was performance versus an injury is anyone’s guess, though he was certainly hurt at that point.  Sophomore Andrew Marty came in as the only QB standing at that point and did a serviceable job as NU stayed with the Gophers the rest of the game.

Cause for continued concern (Item 1) was the passing game.  Marty went 8-10, which appears excellent on a percentage basis until you realize the Cat ran 49 times to a total of 12 passing attempts.  No wonder his completion percentage was high…the defenders were shocked when he actually threw the ball.  The Cats' passing game has been bad and is getting worse.  Frankly, overall we can be happy Rutgers takes the last place in the conference in most categories, except for passing.  WE’RE #14 IN PASSING! No surprise really.  No vertical stretching with the passing game, receivers that can’t get separation on short routes, uninspired play design and playcalling, poor pass protection at the line, and indecisive QB play.  You can pick your reason but none of it is working.

Cause for continued concern (Item 2) was turnovers.  After getting an interception against no turnovers themselves, NU “improved” to a -1 turnover per game average.  Fitz’s argument number one for conservative strategies has been to win the turnover battle, but it’s just not working.  Fans might assume the offense is to blame for this one, and while they have in fact tied for most turnovers lost (with Rutgers, of course), the defense is also second to last with turnovers gained.  I consider this Exhibit A for the case that it’s not just the offense leaving the defense on the field too long.  The defense is also vastly under performing compared to previous years.

Let’s take a deeper dive in to the offense/defense/turnover discussion.  Here’s a chart of Fitzgerald’s time at Northwestern.  It shows relative rank of NU in the Big Ten.  Highlighted years were bowl invite years, as an indicator of a “successful” year.  Remember that the Big Ten was 11 members until 2011 when it grew to 12, and then grew again to 14 in 2014, so the “bottom” gets lower across the chart.

A couple of interesting observations:

While the defense is generally good, recently it certainly hasn’t been ranking far and away better than teams earlier in Fitz’s time at NU.

We can see the precipitous drop in offensive ranking from 2011 to 2015.  Through 2011, NU was running (with McCall as OC) a version of the uptempo spread offense installed by Randy Walker.  In 2012 and 2013, NU used the two QB experiment with Siemian and Colter still based on the spread, with Colter in to play a version of the run option and Siemian playing on obvious passing downs, though that split morphed over the two years, somewhat due to injuries to Colter.  2014 began, IMHO, the start of a more pro-style, ball control offense leaning heavily on Clayton Thorson to distribute the ball.  2018 was a down year overall offensively due to the loss of Justin Jackson and no effective replacement, but the team very well with what they had.

Turnover ranking has been better than average more often than not, but is not necessarily a guarantee of success.  A deeper dive, which I won’t go into, suggests there are nuances related to a) the importance of turnovers created by the defense and b) a tradeoff between turnovers lost compared to yards gained.

Conclusion:  The NU offense has been getting progressively worse over the Fitzgerald/McCall tenure, with some recent good years likely sparked by excellent players (the combo of Thorson/Jackson) rather than any offensive strategy.  Certainly we can say that the coaches have been effectively squeezing successful years out of teams that don’t necessarily excel in any one area, but it doesn’t bode well that this staff has any obvious answers to get better offensive performance out of the current group of players.


NU heads to Illinois for the last game of the season.  This is Lovie Smith’s fourth year leading the Illini and he seems to have pulled a rabbit out of the hat.  At one point midway through their 7th game against Wisconsin, the Illini were down 10-0, had a record of 2-4 with a loss to Eastern Michigan and were looking toward who the next coach might be.  They ended up winning that game 24-23 on a last second field goal and really haven’t looked back since.  They reeled off four straight wins before losing to No 19 Iowa in a relatively close game last weekend.

The book on Illinois is effectively the book on Lovie Smith’s teams.  A relatively mundane offense that is balanced between run/pass and a defense that worries more about taking the ball away then giving up yards.  QB Brandon Peters is unlikely to play due to a second head injury this year, but backup Matt Robinson has seen playing time and is serviceable.  Multiple running backs are likely to see playing time and all are decent, if unexciting.

On defense, watch Jamal Milan who is considered one of the best lineman in the Big Ten despite the lack of gaudy tackle or sack numbers.  As already discussed, Illinois isn’t particularly good at preventing either yards or points, but is good at creating easy points through turnovers.

Northwestern will have to rely on Andrew Marty and Drake Anderson to lead the way with their legs.  Don’t expect to see any sudden or drastic changes in the offensive game plan from last week, which means a lot of running.  On paper, this would appear to work in NU’s favor as Illinois hasn’t been great against the run.  However, that’s been against teams that have some threat of a passing game to keep the safeties and linebackers at least thinking about a pass.  Against the Cats, that threat is really not there, so look for some tough running with big plays only coming from Marty running when he’s not expected to.

Considering NU is playing in a meaningless game away with the fourth string quarterback, and against an Illini team that is headed to a bowl game with players who have never beaten their in-state rival, I do not expect Northwestern to surprise anyone here.  We may be seeing some rarely used seniors playing their last game alongside younger players gaining experience before the day is out.

Illinois 28, NU 17.  Take the over and the Illini.

Season to Date: Straight up (9-2); Against the spread (7-4)

The Lowes Line does not necessarily reflect the views of HailToPurple.com.

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 2019 season it has returned to HailToPurple.com, for anyone to enjoy.  Thanks to the gridiron brain trust at the Lowes Line!