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)
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.
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.
- 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 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
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
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)
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The Lowes Line is an
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football game, with an invariably fearless prediction of the outcome
how NU will fare against what the other "experts" predict. Our
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The crack Lowes Line Staff (alumni Jersey Cat,
GallopingGrapes, P.S. O'Briant, Eric Cockerill, Joel Kanvik, Charlie Simon, and
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the 2019 season it has returned to HailToPurple.com,
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