Northwestern has what Illinois needs to become contender

Illinois+Khalan+Tolson+tackles+Iowa+quarterback+Spencer+Petras+during+the+game+between+the+two+teams.+Tolson+has+signed+with+the+Carolina+Panthers+as+an+undrafted+free+agent.

Ryan Ash

Illinois Khalan Tolson tackles Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras during the game between the two teams. Tolson has signed with the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent.

By Carson Gourdie, Assistant Sports Editor

Despite being a small private school, having higher academic standards for its athletes and less overall talent, Pat Fitzgerald and his Northwestern Wildcats have dominated the Illini, winning the last five matchups. For Lovie Smith, his team has been thoroughly outplayed each time. 

It was actually Tim Beckman who last upset Northwestern. It was 2014 and with bowl eligibility on the line, the Illini capitalized on five Wildcat turnovers, walking away with a 47-33 victory. 

Granted, Northwestern has been a better program than Illinois for over a decade. Fitzgerald has created one of the most disciplined and tough teams in the conference, garnering praise across the country and has even generated interest from Smith’s former employer, the Chicago Bears. 

“I’ve known Pat for a long period of time,” Smith said. “He’s a great man. I’m not surprised at all (at his success). He’s a fantastic football coach.”

Last season, the usual rock-solid Wildcats suffered its worst season under Fitzgerald. The Wildcats limped out to a 2-9 start and had one of the worst offenses in the Big Ten. But somehow, Fitzgerald managed to get his team ready to upset a bowl-bound Smith team. 

But, it wasn’t like the Wildcats won on a walk-off field goal or in triple overtime. Instead, the touchdown-underdogs ran for 378 yards over Illini en route to a 29-10 victory. 

Granted, Brandon Peters was out. And Josh Imatorbhebhe. And Jake Hansen. Regardless, the Illini failed to show up against a team that had nothing to play for — other than continuing to show the conference who runs the Land of Lincoln. 

Northwestern has already clinched the West Division for the second time in three seasons. And despite Michigan State upsetting them, Northwestern is a victory away in Indianapolis from securing its first major bowl appearance since the 1996 Rose Bowl. Losing to Illinois wouldn’t change that. But for Illinois, it may be a victory they need to regain confidence.

“Everybody has a rival,” Smith said. “Ali-Frazier, there’s always a rival. This (Northwestern) game is maybe a little more important than others.”

When the Illini were up 14-0 over Iowa, it appeared Smith had figured out the formula for Big Ten contention. A stout run game. One-on-one opportunities for wide receivers. A defense flying to the ball. 

However, after the most encouraging 17 minutes of Illini football in years, the Illini crashed and burned, allowing the Hawkeyes to go on a 35-0 run to put the upset bid to rest. 

But for all of the criticism, Smith is 6-6 in his last 12 Big Ten games. That’s better than Nebraska, Michigan State and Purdue and the same as Northwestern. So, what’s missing? 

Illinois will never be the next Ohio State. Nobody is. Programs like the Buckeyes are operating on a completely different level. But schools like Northwestern and Indiana, who aren’t blue bloods, are competing on a very high level lately, with both schools eyeing the Fiesta Bowl this season. Why can’t Smith replicate their results?

Because Northwestern knows how to close out games and don’t beat themselves. 

Northwestern has won three one-score games this season. They’ve cracked over 27 points just once. They’ve only lost the turnover battle once — against Michigan State. 

But above all, Fitzgerald, a defensive-minded coach, has been able to craft a defense that can shut down offenses, ranging from Purdue’s air raid to Wisconsin’s run game. When a defense can hold offenses to under 20 points, there’s always a chance to win. 

Smith is also a defensive mind. He didn’t coach the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl appearance because of quarterback Rex Grossman; it was Brian Urlacher and the defense. 

In the Smith era, Illinois has never been able to consistently shut down offenses. Yes, they’ve been able to force turnovers, but Illinois hasn’t been able to hold offenses below 20 points without them. 

Against Iowa, the Illini forced zero turnovers. After a strong first quarter, the Hawkeyes sliced the secondary and were able to run the ball, too. 

The Illini have the second-worst total defense in the conference, giving up around 450 yards a game while surrendering 32.5 points per game. If this was the Big 12, fine. If the Illini consistently put up 45 points per game, fine. But they don’t, like most Big Ten teams. 

Illinois allowed 45 points against Wisconsin. Northwestern held them to seven. Purdue scored 31 on Illinois but only 20 against Northwestern. Iowa scored 35 on Illinois but only 20 against Northwestern. 

If Smith wants to flip the trajectory of this rivalry, if he wants to replicate Northwestern’s success of 10 bowl games in 13 seasons, if he wants to compete for the West Division crown, he will need his defense to improve immensely. 

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