Northwestern vs. Illinois prediction and game preview. The Wildcats try to become bowl-eligible with a victory over the rival Fighting Illini on Saturday.
Northwestern vs. Illinois Game Preview
When: Saturday, Nov. 26 – Noon ET
Where: Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.
TV Broadcast: Big Ten Network
Northwestern tied a school record with 10 victories last season, but losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State to start this year made it clear it wasn’t going to experience the same success. The Wildcats have recovered enough to get within a victory of becoming bowl-eligible for the seventh time under coach Pat Fitzgerald.
While 6-6 would be an average season for Northwestern, it would be considered a success for Illinois. First-year coach Lovie Smith knows he has a long way to go to rebuild the program with the Fighting Illini entering this rivalry game with a 3-8 record.
What To Know About Northwestern
The Wildcats have lost three of their last four games and missed their first shot at their sixth win after falling to Minnesota, 29-12, last week. Justin Jackson finished with 90 yards and a touchdown, but he’s been held to fewer than 100 yards seven times this season after going over that mark on eight occasions in 2015.
Former walk-on Austin Carr has been Northwestern’s offensive catalyst this season, but he took a blow to the head midway through the third quarter last week and had to leave the game. Carr is tied for sixth in the nation in touchdown catches (12), eighth in receptions (80) and 10th in receiving yards (1,170) on his way to being named one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award as the country’s top receiver. His status is still unclear.
What To Know About Illinois
Illinois beat Michigan State, 31-27, on Nov. 5, but it has been outscored 76-3 by Wisconsin and Iowa the last two weeks. The Illini combined for six turnovers in those defeats and couldn’t get anything going against the Hawkeyes despite having quarterback Wes Lunt back as their starter under center. Lunt went 19 for 41 and threw an interception, but he’s still the best option for Illinois at a position that hasn’t produced much at all from anyone this season.
Offense: Northwestern – Even if Carr is out, the Wildcats have some stability with Jackson and Clayton Thorson.
Defense: Illinois – The Illini have two future NFL players on the defensive line in Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot. Phillips leads the conference with 17 tackles for loss, and Smoot isn’t far behind with 13.
Special Teams: Northwestern – Illinois was out of the game last week as soon as it allowed a punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter.
Coaching: Northwestern – Smith still has to get into the groove of coaching college kids.
Intangibles: Northwestern – Jackson ran for 172 yards and a touchdown while the defense intercepted Lunt in a 24-14 win last season.
Matchup To Watch
Jackson vs. Illinois’ defense
Jackson torched the Illini last season, and there’s a good possibility he does it again. Illinois ranks 11th in the Big Ten in run defense and has allowed 30 touchdowns on the ground.
Spread: Northwestern -15.5
Northwestern vs. Illinois Prediction
Jackson’s big day consists of three touchdowns, Lunt completes less than 50 percent of his passes and throws two interceptions, and the Wildcats beat their in-state rivals again.
Northwestern vs. Illinois final score prediction: Northwestern 35, Illinois 14