No. 16 Northwestern and Illinois close out their regular-season schedules Saturday (3:30 ET) for state bragging rights as the Big Ten foes face off at Soldier Field in Chicago. The Wildcats are -3.5 on Heritage's college football odds with a total of 41.
School-Record Win Total In Sight For NU
What Northwestern (9-2, 5-2) has to play for is a 10-win season, a second-place finish in the Big Ten West Division behind Iowa and perhaps a better bowl game. Most projections currently have Northwestern facing an SEC team in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl. You hear some rumors that Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald could be targeted by a bigger Power 5 football program this offseason with so many openings.
The Wildcats are off a 13-7 defensive slugfest upset at Wisconsin last week. NU led 10-0 at the half, when Wisconsin had 50 total yards and minus-19 rushing. UW finally got on the board with a Corey Clement 9-yard TD run at 8:24 of the third. Jack Mitchell's 37-yard field goal with four minutes left in the game forced Wisconsin to score a touchdown to win. And with 1:47 left, Joel Stave drove the Badgers from their own 26 to the Northwestern 1 -- a 22-yard pass to Troy Fumagalli looked like a game-tying touchdown, but Fumagalli was ruled down at the 1. On first-and-goal, Stave's pass to Jazz Peavy was originally ruled a TD but overturned on review because Peavy was bobbling the ball. On second-and-goal, Stave was sacked for a 10-yard loss and was shaken up. The Badgers spiked the ball on third down and backup QB Bart Houston had to come in for an injured Stave on fourth-and-goal and his pass sailed just out of reach of Tanner McEvoy with two seconds left. Crazy ending if you saw it.
Justin Jackson led Northwestern's ground attack with his third-straight 100-yard game and the 13th of the sophomore's career. He finished with 139 yards on 35 carries (he's second in the nation with 261 carries). But it has been the defense that has carried Northwestern this year and it held UW to 203 total yards, including a Northwestern record minus-26 yards rushing. The Cats also had six sacks (most since 2009) and five takeaways. End Deonte Gibson was named Big Ten Player of the Week as he had three sacks and four tackles for loss.
With the win, NU has now won nine or more games for the fifth time since 1903 and just the sixth time in program history. The school record is 10, in 1903 and 1995. Northwestern is 7-4 against the spread on college football odds and 4-7 'over/under.'
Bowl Bid Could Help Illinois' Cubit
Illinois (5-6, 2-5) fired Coach Tim Beckman on the eve of the season for some off-field issues and replaced him on an interim basis with offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, a former head coach at Western Michigan. Cubit has a pretty decent shot at keeping the job for next season if Illinois can win this game and get bowl eligible. It might be wise for the Illini to keep Cubit for one more year because Illinois is not a great job and will be pretty far down in the pecking order nationally with so many other jobs open (USC, Miami, Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Maryland, Missouri, maybe LSU, likely Virginia and others). The school also still has to hire an athletic director. That's a lot to do in one offseason.
The Illini are off a 32-23 loss at Minnesota. Illinois outgained the Gophers 432-343 and had the ball for more than two-thirds of the second half yet couldn't prevail. Wes Lunt was 34-for-47 for 279 yards, two scores and a TD for the Illini, while Josh Ferguson rushed 20 times for 105 yards and Malik Turner caught 11 passes for 126 yards and a touchdown. Illinois turned it over three times.
Lunt leads the Big Ten in completions per game (22.7) and ranks fourth in passing yards per game (229.1). He has thrown just five interceptions in 440 pass attempts in 2015. Ferguson is one of three active players in the nation with 2,500+ rushing and 1,000+ receiving yards. Illinois' losses have come to teams that are a combined 51-15 -- four of them are currently ranked in Iowa, Ohio State, North Carolina and Northwestern. Wisconsin and Penn State are the other losses.
The Illini are 5-6 ATS on college football picks and 4-7 O/U.
Illinois played at Northwestern to close the 2014 regular season and did get bowl eligible for the first time since 2011 with a 47-33 victory -- it would turn out to be Beckman's final Big Ten game coached. Reilly O'Toole (gone now) passed for 147 yards and three scores while rushing for three 147 yards. Ferguson added 95 yards and two scores in 15 carries. The Illini had 438 yards, 291 rushing, and forced five Northwestern turnovers. Jackson rushed for 130 yards and two scores on 24 carries for Northwestern, but QB Zack Oliver was responsible for all five giveaways (three interceptions, two fumbles). He was starting for an injured Trevor Siemian.
The winner of this game since 2009 gets the Land of Lincoln Trophy. Saturday's game will be the 109th meeting between the schools. Illinois leads the series 55-48-5 overall and 2-0 at neutral sites (both at Wrigley Field, last in 2010). The Illini have won three of the last five meetings overall but the Wildcats eight of the past 12.
College Football Picks: Give the points, go 'under' at Heritage. The Illini have lost 12 straight vs. ranked opponents by an average score of 22.6 points. Illinois is 1-4 ATS in its past five Big Ten games. Northwestern has covered five of its past seven in November. The 'under' is 6-2 in NU's past eight after a win. The 'under' is 8-1 in Illinois' past nine vs. teams with a winning record.