Illinois (2-9) at Northwestern (8-3)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Saturday, November 24, 12 p.m. (et).
FACTS & STATS: Site: Ryan Field (47,130) -- Evanston, Illinois. Television: Big Ten Network. Home Record: Illinois 2-5, NU 5-1. Away Record: Illinois 0-4, NU 3-2. Neutral Record: Illinois 0-0, NU 0-0. Conference Record: Illinois 0-7, NU 4-3. Series Record: Illinois leads, 54-46-5.
GAME NOTES: Two teams at opposite ends of the Big Ten spectrum are set to square off at Ryan Field, as the Northwestern Wildcats will host Illinois on Saturday afternoon.
It marks the regular-season finale for these cross-state rivals, who have squared off every years since 1927 and will battle once again for the Land of Lincoln Trophy. Illinois retained the trophy following a 38-35 win over NU last year in Champaign, and the Fighting Illini lead the all-time series, 54-46-5.
Illinois has not had much to celebrate this season, as the team has lost each of its last eight contests, including last week's 20-17 setback to Purdue. The Illini have not beaten a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since topping Western Michigan in their season opener nearly three months ago. Their only other victory came against Charleston Southern, an FCS school.
On the other sideline, Northwestern is headed to a bowl game for the fifth straight season. Still, the Wildcats would certainly like to head into the postseason with some momentum as they have split their last six contests after starting the season 5-0. Last week, they traveled to East Lansing and came away with a 23-20 overtime victory against Michigan State.
Illinois' offense has gone missing for much of the season. During the team's current eight-game slide, the Illini have averaged a mere 13 points per tilt. They enter the weekend ranked 116th out of 120 FBS schools in total offense (301.6 ypg) and 118th in scoring (16.9 ppg). A three-year starter at quarterback, junior Nathan Scheelhaase simply has not showed much progression. In 35 career games, he has thrown only 15 touchdown passes to go along with 22 interceptions. Scheelhaase is capable of beating a defense with his legs, but opponents have been able to bottle him up for the most part. In the loss to Purdue, he completed 22-of-38 passes for only 160 yards and took three sacks, although he did add a team-high 76 yards and a TD on the ground.
Despite their overall struggles on both sides of the ball, the Illini have actually been fairly stout on third downs. They lead the Big Ten and rank eighth nationally in defensive third-down conversion rate (29.6 percent). They are also 19th in the country in defensive three-and-outs. Still, at the end of the day the team ranks second-to-last in the conference in scoring defense (30.45 ppg), although the unit has shown considerable improvement over the past two games. One week after holding Minnesota to 17 points, the Illini limited Purdue to 20 points this past weekend. However, they had some trouble containing Akeem Shavers and Ralph Bolden, who each ran for more than 90 yards. Freshman linebacker Mason Monheim finished with seven tackles in the loss, adding to his team-leading total of 81 stops (6.0 TFL).
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has split reps at quarterback between pocket passer Trevor Siemian and dual-threat Kain Colter. Both QBs completed 13 passes for a combined 246 yards last time out, with Colter tossing a third- quarter touchdown pass to Tim Riley. The running game was virtually nonexistent, as Colter's 28 yards on the ground paced the team. However, freshman "superback" Dan Vitale had a breakout game with a career-high nine catches for 110 yards. His 41-yard reception in the fourth quarter -- also a career-long -- set up the eventual game-winning field goal. Big plays in the passing game have been few and far between for the Wildcats, who rank 16th nationally in rushing offense (221.2 ypg) but only 106th in passing (171.8 ypg).
NU's defense recorded four takeaways and a defensive touchdown to beat Michigan State on the road. David Nwabuisi's 43-yard interception return for a touchdown gave the Wildcats an eight-point lead early in the third quarter, their largest cushion of the game. The four takeaways (two fumble recoveries, two interceptions) marked the team's highest total in a game since 2010. And with the game on the line late in regulation, the Wildcats broke up four consecutive passes to end the Spartans' final threat. In what has become somewhat of a theme, they gave up a lot of yardage (419 total yards) but not many points. On the season, NU ranks 11th in the Big Ten in total defense (398.4 ypg) and sixth in scoring defense (23.6 ppg).
Don't dismiss Illinois' win-loss record. The Illini beat Northwestern at Wrigley Field in 2010, then rallied from an 18-point second-half deficit to win last year's meeting in Champaign. Despite an overall lackluster season, retaining the Land of Lincoln Trophy for a third straight year should provide the Fighting Illini with plenty of motivation to come out swinging.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Northwestern 23, Illinois 20
11/21 11:23:44 ET