Photo credit: Craig Pessman / Illinois Athletics

Illinois travels to Evanston on Saturday to take on the in-state rival Northwestern Wildcats.

This is a rivalry game that is played between these two schools every year. These two teams play for one of the best trophies in college football — a bronze replica of Abraham Lincoln’s top hat. This trophy is appropriately named the Land of Lincoln Trophy.

Northwestern has dominated Illinois on the football field of late. The Wildcats have currently won five in a row in this match-up. They seem to have the Fighting Illini’s number even during down years.

That goes to show how good of a coach Pat Fitzgerald is. Fitzgerald has turned the Wildcats into a respectable Big Ten program. Since he took over in 2006, Northwestern has made nine bowls, including its first bowl win ever in 2012.

The Illini are looking to keep their bowl hopes alive. For this to happen, they would first need to beat Northwestern this weekend. They would then need to beat whoever they play in the championship week crossover game next week.

As of now, Illinois and Michigan are both in fifth place in their respective divisions. Michigan looks beatable this year. However, the Wolverines have their own COVID-19 problems now.

Wins over both Northwestern and whoever they will end up playing next weekend would put the Illini at 4-4 overall. In a strange year like this year, that would give the Illini a good chance at a bowl invite.

A Look at Northwestern

Northwestern has an elite defense. The Wildcats are giving up only 15 points per game this season. They have held their opponent to 20 points or fewer in every game but one.

The only time they gave up more than 20 was in their 29-20 loss to Michigan State. That was also their last game played due to Minnesota cancelling for reasons related to COVID-19.

The defense is led by their stellar linebackers. This group includes Blake Gallagher, Paddy Fisher, and Chris Bergin. Those three are the leading tacklers on the team.

This is a defense that forces turnovers. Northwestern has forced 16 turnovers, with 12 of those being interceptions. Defensive back Brandon Joseph leads the Wildcats with five interceptions.

Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters is going to have to be smart with the football to give the Illini a shot. Knock on wood, but Peters has yet to throw an interception this year. We’ll see what gives on Saturday.

The offense is a bit different than in the past. The Wildcats are a little more pass happy than usual. Peyton Ramsey, the Indiana transfer, has thrown the ball just under 200 times this season. He’s thrown for over 1,100 yards and eight touchdowns.

Wide receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman is having a breakout year with 344 yards and four touchdowns. Compared to last year, he had just 188 yards and no touchdowns. The Illini are going to need to find out a way to slow Chiaokahiao-Bowman and Ramsey down.

A Look at Illinois

Seven weeks into the season and no one knows what to think about the Illini still. They’ve played like they did in the Tim Beckman days. They’ve also played like they should under a fifth-year former NFL coach.

We just don’t know what we’re going to get with this team each week. We even got both versions against Iowa last week. After starting the game off with a 14-0 lead, the Illini surrendered 35 straight points to the Hawkeyes.

Five years in and it appears the coaching staff is still having trouble with making in-game adjustments. Iowa’s staff made great adjustments starting in the second quarter. After the Illini started with a 14-0 lead, they scored just once the rest of the way while giving up 35 points.

Once again, Peters didn’t have stats that jumped off the sheet. But he has continued to do exactly what is asked of him. He finished 10-for-18 passing for 116 yards and two touchdowns.

In what was somewhat of a surprise, Isaiah Williams came into the game late to take over quarterback. He gave the offense a little bit of a spark with 121 total yards and a touchdown. It was a case of too little, too late.

Chase Brown had another solid game with 98 total yards. Josh Imatorbhebhe and Daniel Barker each had a touchdown reception from Peters. Carlos Sandy scored his first career touchdown on a nice pass from Williams. Sophomores Dalevon Campbell and Casey Washington had solid games with two receptions each.

If we’ve learned one thing, the defense isn’t going to be dominant under Lovie Smith. They will force turnovers, but they’re not going to stop most offenses. The defense is allowing over 30 points per game. That makes it hard on the offense.

In the two wins this year, the defense gave up 20 to Rutgers, and 23 to Nebraska. In those two games, Illinois gave up far less than the season average. Ramsey has thrown six interceptions on the year, so the Illinois defense is going to have to take advantage of that in this game.

Preview

This isn’t a great match-up for Illinois. The Illini seem to struggle against good defenses. Illinois can score against good defenses. But, good defenses make adjustments, and that obviously worked against the Illini last weekend.

Northwestern is coming off of its first loss of the season. Michigan State played perfect against the Wildcats, which led to a 29-20 win. Michigan State held the Northwestern offense to under 300 yards.

Illinois won’t be able to do that. To make up for that, the defense is going to have to force turnovers. That is something Michigan State did in the match-up against the Wildcats. It forced four Northwestern turnovers in the win.

Last year, Northwestern beat the Illini 29-10 in Champaign. This was ultimately a very disappointing loss for the Illini. Illinois was getting ready for its first bowl game since 2014.

Northwestern was at the end of a season that culminated in a record of 3-9. The Wildcats also had one of the worst offenses in all of college football. Granted, the Illini were without plenty of starters.

This year, Northwestern’s defense is too good. Illinois is too inconsistent as well. Northwestern is so well-coached. The Wildcats should win this match-up pretty easily.

This contest will begin at 11 a.m. CT, and will air on ESPN2.

Prediction

Northwestern 31, Illinois 20