The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Bowl eligibility hangs over Illinois football during rivalry week

Rivalry week has arrived, and college football fans couldn’t be more excited. The slate on hand for Thanksgiving weekend is stacked with the usual historical games like No. 2 Ohio State versus No. 3 Michigan, the second best “the game,” behind Yale and Harvard, of course; No. 8 Alabama versus Auburn; and of course, the Illini (5-6, 3-5) versus the Northwestern Wildcats (6-5, 4-4).

After a tumultuous start to the year for Northwestern, which saw its head coach fired and players transfer out amid the hazing scandal, it has put together a strong season. Few believed the Wildcats would qualify for a bowl game when the year began. Here they are, however, taking the bus down to Champaign with a winning record for a 3:30 p.m. matchup on Saturday.

Thirteen years of dominance from the Wildcats ended in 2021, but that 10-1 span remains in the back of the Illini’s heads. A similar feat is the desire of the Illini, who seek their third consecutive victory in the series. The last two victories were by a combined score of 88-17, leaving no doubt. A much closer score is expected this time around, with the Illini favored by just 5.5 points early.

The defense has really come alive for the Wildcats, allowing just 15.8 points per game over the last five games. They’ve also forced 10 turnovers, using the game-changing plays to score points on the other side of the ball.

The senior linebacker duo composed of Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller lead the unit on the field. The veterans have stepped up vocally and with their performance on the field, combining for 195 tackles, six sacks, three interceptions and two forced fumbles. Both will be key on Saturday in stopping both the Illinois run and short passing game.

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    Freshman Kaden Feagin remains out for the season after the running back had shoulder surgery last week, leaving the bulk of the carries to junior Reggie Love III. Eighteen carries for 64 yards and a touchdown in Love’s first start since his injury was promising against the elite Iowa defense, and he is ready to retake the reins for the end of the season.

    Head coach Bret Bielema stated that fifth-year quarterback John Paddock would start the season finale, his third start in a row. After torching an abysmal Indiana defense two weeks ago, setting a Memorial Stadium record of 507 passing yards, Paddock struggled in Iowa City. The veteran was 22/47 passing and was fortunate enough to have three potential interceptions dropped. Still, Bielema sticks with Paddock for what has become their biggest game of the season.

    Northwestern doesn’t have anyone who stands out too much on offense, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry and no 600-yard receivers yet. Without any key players to worry about, the Illini defense will be more comfortable, similar to last week’s game at Iowa.

    The Illini surrendered just 281 yards and 15 points against the Hawkeyes, with some new faces stepping up. Senior safety Clayton Bush emerged as the second leading tackler for the Illini last week, aiding the inexperienced secondary. The defensive backs have been a constant rotation in Champaign this year, but Bush has been a positive in recent weeks.

    The ever-dangerous junior lineman Jer’Zhan Newton is always a name to watch as well, though his impact has been limited in recent weeks. Opposing offenses have consistently double-teamed Newton, forcing other Illini to beat them. Regardless, he will be key if the Illini want to keep the Land of Lincoln top hat trophy in Champaign for at least another year.

     

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    About the Contributor
    Ben Fader, Assistant Sports Editor
    Hello, I’m Ben! I’m a junior at Illinois and assistant sports editor at The Daily Illini. I’m majoring in journalism and minoring in communications and recreation, sport and tourism. This is my third year with The Daily Illini, and I can’t wait to produce some amazing work. Feel free to contact me at my email below with questions or concerns, or if you just want to talk sports!
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