Projecting Northwestern-Illinois Big Ten Finale to Stay 'Under'

northwestern illinois

Rainman M.

Thursday, November 23, 2017 1:53 PM GMT

Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017 1:53 PM GMT

Illinois (2-9) hosts in-state rival No. 22 Northwestern (8-3) Saturday at 4 p.m. ET in the season finale for the Illini, while the Wildcats are headed to a bowl. The game total is set at 46.

Free NCAAF Pick: 'Under' 46.5Best Line Offered: Pinnacle

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No. 22 Northwestern at Illinois

Illinois' offense was putrid when healthy and is even worse when decimated by injury. The Illini have failed to reach 20 points in their past 5 games. They rank 124th in points per game and 126th in yards. Their better offensive players are injured. Sophomore quarterback Jeff George, who completes barely half his passes, is listed as "questionable." Backup quarterback Cam Thomas is doubtful. Chayce Crouch, the inexperienced quarterback who has completed less than 50% of his passes, could start. The Illini won't field a healthy or proven quarterback. Or a running back. Starter Mike Epstein is injured. His two best backups average fewer than 4 yards per carry.

Northwestern's defense is well-rounded. The Cats rank 29th in points per game allowed, 44th in opposing passer rating and 17th in opposing yards per rush attempt. Even if teams do drive down the field, Northwestern's red zone defense is ranked 3rd. They consistently hold weaker opposing offenses to few points. The Wildcats have allowed 13 points in their past 2 games combined. Those two opponents ranked 90th or worst in points per game.

Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz successfully infuses his defense with strong tackling technique and self-discipline. After a difficult start to the year, the group is jelling. Since losing to Penn State on Oct. 7, Northwestern has given up 20+ points twice, and no more than 24, in four quarters (team played three OT games). The most important player is Paddy Fisher, the freshman middle linebacker who leads the defense with 98 tackles.

The anemic Illini should struggle to reach double digits against Northwestern's elite and concentrated defense. The key for Illinois defensively is to remain competitive. They rank towards the bottom half in terms of yards allowed, but they allow only 23 points at home, which would place them in the top 50.

Coach Lovie Smith is notorious for his bend-but-don't break defensive style. Teams have consistently run over Illinois -- Minnesota for 333 yards, for instance. When other teams control time of possession and march down the field, but without scoring a touchdown, then they eat up clock without threatening the 'over.' 

Illinois' run defense has also shown up at home against superior competition. For instance, it limited Wisconsin to 3.7 yards per carry. The Wildcats' offense is balanced. But it will be crucial for Illinois to contain running back Justin Jackson and keep Northwestern one-dimensional. The Illini average 3.9 yards per carry allowed at home, which would place them in the top 40.  Linebacker Del'Shawn Phillips and safety Stanley Green lead Illinois in tackles.

If NU quarterback Clayton Thorson is forced to spearhead his offense, he has yet to prove himself on the road, where his passer rating is 99.2 and where he has thrown 8 of his 11 interceptions. Thorson's mediocre rating derives from the inconsistency of his accuracy and the lack of talent at wide receiver. He misses the connection which he had enjoyed last year with star wide receiver Austin Carr.


The Verdict

Illinois' defensive toughness at home and ineptitude on offense explains why the 'under' is 5-1 in Illinois home games. Its run defense will be crucial in containing Northwestern's offense. Meanwhile, the Illini lack talent and experience on offense and will struggle to score against Northwestern's consistently solid defense on our NCAAF Picks.

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