THREE BIG STORYLINES
The forgotten man
Maybe it was due to the way in which Illinois’ loss to then-No. 24 Iowa transpired final week inside Memorial Stadium, however it feels as if there’s been little speak surrounding a key athlete who missed the sport.
Operating again Mike Epstein was a game-time resolution for Illini coach Lovie Smith and in the end didn’t play a single snap.
Smith didn’t make clear afterward why Epstein was absent from the sport — he was a part of a senior-day ceremony earlier than opening kickoff — however did say Epstein can be accessible for Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff at Northwestern.
“I don’t know if it affected the gameplan as a lot as you lose a man that’s been regular, that’s had a knack for simply making performs,” Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith stated when commenting on the shortage of Epstein versus the Hawkeyes. “And he’s been in video games. He’s obtained expertise. He’s a very good soccer participant.”
Rod Smith’s speeding assault compiled 149 yards with out Epstein, the majority coming from Chase Brown (83). It was freshman Reggie Love III who pulled backup obligation for Brown, toting the ball six instances for 13 yards after recording only one carry within the earlier 5 video games.
“We expect Reggie’s going to be a extremely good soccer participant. He simply hasn’t had a lot alternative but to showcase what he can do,” Rod Smith stated, “however he had that Saturday. … Hope to get Mike again quickly and have all of them again able to roll for Saturday.”
Blip on the radar
Blake Hayes could be essentially the most constant Illini soccer participant of the final 4 seasons. The Australian punter is understood for each high-flying kicks and pinning the ball deep in opposing territory.
The senior didn’t have a lot luck in both of these classes towards Iowa.
A preseason All-America second-team choice for each USA Right now and Athlon, Hayes skilled a uncommon tough day when his seven punts averaged simply 38 yards. Two of his punts did wind up contained in the Hawkeyes’ 20-yard line, however one other three arrange Iowa drives beginning at midfield.
Including insult to damage, Hayes on Monday was not listed among the many semifinalists for the Ray Man Award, given to the nation’s greatest punter. Among the many 10 athletes included was Iowa’s Tory Taylor, who averaged 42 yards on his 5 punts final weekend.
“I haven’t heard that query (about Hayes’ punting) in about 4 years since I’ve been right here,” Lovie Smith stated. “It’s robust to have an awesome day every single day. I don’t know anybody that has. Once I say nice day, we’re anticipating Blake to place the ball contained in the 5 each time or it’s a cloudy day, 10 seconds of hangtime.
“I do know he’s enthusiastic about taking part in Northwestern this week, and we’ll all get again and be on the prime of our sport.”
Lovie Smith was requested early within the week about his relationship with Northwestern offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, who took that position on coach Pat Fitzgerald’s workers previous to this season.
Bajakian was Smith’s offensive high quality management coach with the Chicago Bears between 2004 and 2006. The 2 reunited when Smith coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with Bajakian serving as quarterbacks coach for Smith’s remaining season in 2015. Bajakian has spurred enchancment in Northwestern’s assault, because the unit is up from 16.3 factors per sport final season to 24.8 factors per sport this 12 months.
Quarterback Peyton Ramsey, a graduate switch from Indiana, has helped gasoline the turnaround by finishing 59.1 % of his passes for 1,136 yards and eight touchdowns.
“Mike Bajakian is an impressive coach,” Smith stated. “A whole lot of school offenses are related so far as among the read-option ideas, however we see slightly twist of NFL, too, from Mike’s background. Third down, simply typically, working the soccer. However what we’re going to see is a a number of (faceted) offensive assault.”
TWO KEY MATCHUPS
Brandon Peters vs. Greg Newsome II
Although Peyton Ramsey has offered a veteran presence at quarterback for the Wildcats, the large purpose they’re slated to face No. 3 Ohio State in subsequent Saturday’s Massive Ten championship sport is their protection.
Northwestern is allowing solely 15.3 factors per sport and has allowed simply six passing touchdowns all season.
An enormous purpose for that’s Newsome, a 6-foot-1 junior cornerback who owns a whopping 9 move breakups on the 12 months. He additionally notched his first profession interception throughout a 17-7 victory towards Wisconsin on Nov. 21 in Evanston.
Brandon Peters is coming off a Jekyll/Hyde efficiency final week wherein he began 8 of 8 and threw an early pair of landing passes earlier than the Illini quarterback completed 10 of 18 for 116 passing yards.
“He’s a aggressive man,” Lovie Smith stated of Newsome. “He has a nook mindset, speaking about it’s at all times in regards to the subsequent play. … He has all of the traits you’re on the lookout for in an impressive participant.”
Illinois entrance seven vs. Northwestern working backs
Contemplating linebacker Tarique Barnes is out and neither defensive sort out Jamal Woods nor linebacker Khalan Tolson has a transparent damage standing, it turns into particularly vital for Illinois’ remaining linemen — defensive finish Owen Carney Jr. included — and linebackers to step up versus all kinds of ball-carrying choices.
Sophomore Drake Anderson (61 carries, 252 yards) and junior Isaiah Bowser (72 carries, 212 yards) haul the ball greater than anybody for the Wildcats. However Anderson, Bowser, Peyton Ramsey and 4 others have both one or two speeding touchdowns apiece this season.
Maybe Mike Bajakian will try to reveal an Illinois secondary that might be lacking cornerback Nate Hobbs, however it appears doubtless Northwestern, just like the Illini, will attempt to set up a run sport early. And Illinois’ probably short-handed entrance seven have to be as much as the problem.
“Two wonderful working backs, working backs have slightly bit totally different taste — (Bowser) extra perhaps between the tackles, Anderson could make you miss in open area, slightly bit extra shifty man,” Lovie Smith stated. “Peyton Ramsey has had success in our league for an extended time frame. … Athletic sufficient to maneuver the chains together with his toes.”
ONE STAT THAT MATTERS
The variety of turnovers Northwestern dedicated in a shock 29-20 loss at Michigan State on Nov. 28. That was the newest sport the Wildcats performed, with their sport at Minnesota canceled final weekend due to optimistic COVID-19 assessments inside the Minnesota program. Illinois didn’t drive a single Iowa turnover — and paid for it — whereas Northwestern suffered the inverse destiny versus the Spartans. Linebacker Jake Hansen and the Illini takeaway machine — even with some guys beat up — have to create slightly mayhem on this one.
ILLINOIS WILL WIN IF …
… The offense performs extra constantly because it did through the first quarter of the Iowa sport. It appeared the Illini couldn’t make a mistake throughout these quarter-hour, plus slightly spillover into the second quarter. Illinois might have stemmed a Hawkeyes comeback had its personal offense saved pushing ahead as a substitute of severely stalling out. That ought to stay the gameplan, particularly given Northwestern’s defensive success this season.
NORTHWESTERN WILL WIN IF …
… Peyton Ramsey is allowed to settle in early and execute Mike Bajakian’s scheme. The Illini wreaked havoc on quarterback Spencer Petras and Iowa’s offensive line early final week earlier than working out of steam because the Hawkeyes performed higher and Illinois racked up accidents. Ramsey, as Lovie Smith famous, is a Massive Ten veteran and a key purpose why the Wildcats have improved. Permitting him to get right into a groove early might significantly deflate any probability the Illini have of pulling the upset.
THE PICK … Northwestern 24, Illinois 14
Mike Epstein’s return will present a pleasant increase for the Illini offense, however the Wildcats’ protection — with additional prep time courtesy the Minnesota cancellation — ultimately wipes out these good vibes with extra stout play. Illinois’ protection will maintain pretty agency, however Peyton Ramsey and Co. will just do sufficient proper to increase Northwestern’s sequence win streak to 6.