CHAMPAIGN — The University of Illinois football season will end Saturday at Memorial Stadium. No big sendoff for a stellar senior class. No bowl plans. Just a faint hope that an upset over No. 23 Northwestern would end a nine-game losing streak.
Northwestern, on the other hand, looks like a team just getting started. How that happened goes back to early October when the Wildcats found themselves at a critical crossroads.
Moments after Northwestern lost its homecoming game to Penn State, 31-7, a dejected coach Pat Fitzgerald arrived at his postgame interview knowing something had to change.
Northwestern’s season was going in the wrong direction. The team was 2-3 and preparing to travel to Maryland.
“I’m incredibly disappointed in the loss,” Fitzgerald seethed. “We’re the only ones who can fix it and I know that’s what this group will do.”
Northwestern fixed it, all right. The Wildcats won at Maryland, then became the first team in the country to win three consecutive games in overtime, which has allowed them to arrive for Saturday's 3 p.m. Big Ten Conference contest (FS1) riding a six-game winning streak.
If the Wildcats (8-3, 6-2) beat Illinois (2-9, 0-8) for the Land of Lincoln trophy, they’ll have a chance to tack on one more in a bowl game. That would give Northwestern 10 victories for the second time in three seasons.
While the Illini play out the season with a commitment to youth and a determination to overcome a crippling number of injuries, Northwestern is trying to maintain the momentum established during its winning streak.
How has Northwestern saved its season?
For one thing, it tightened up the production of its defensive line. The Wildcats are 10th in the country in run defense, giving up an average of 112.3 yards per game.
Offensively, senior running back Justin Jackson has had another strong season. He’s over 1,000 rushing yards for the fourth straight season. Only Wisconsin’s Heisman Trophy winner, Ron Dayne, has done that. And Jackson’s 5,139 career rushing yards ranks fourth in Big Ten history.
Northwestern also has become a team that takes advantage of its opportunities. During the win streak, the Wildcats have scored on 27 of 28 red zone opportunities.
“Justin Jackson is as good as it gets,” Illini defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said. “He’s going to be a big challenge for us. Their quarterback, Clayton Thorson, is playing good football as well. They’re a really tough out on third down.
“They’re on a roll right now.”
As for the Illini, the quarterback picture is a bit murky, as usual, but freshman Cam Thomas is available after missing the last two games with a concussion. Backup Jeff George Jr. also was back in action at practice this week after suffering a thumb injury Nov. 11 against Indiana.
All things being equal, the coaching staff has wanted to see more of Thomas.
“He was close last week,” Illini coach Lovie Smith said. “We think he will be good to go.”
Nine seniors will be honored at their final game. The group includes James Crawford, Christian DiLauro, Jaylen Dunlap, Nathan Echard, Jordan Fagan, Kendrick Foster, Ahmari Hayes, Brandon Roberts and Malik Turner.