Football: How Northwestern has dominated Illinois over the past five years


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Northwestern players celebrate after being Illinois last season. The Cats have won their last five games against the Fighting Illini.

Andrew Golden, Gameday Editor


The last time Northwestern lost to its rival in orange and blue, the program looked much different.

Justin Jackson — wearing a peculiar No. 28 — was a true freshman for the Wildcats, Clayton Thorson — wearing an even more peculiar No. 2 — had never taken a snap under center in college and 14 of the Wildcats on that roster would end up in the NFL.

But on Nov. 29, 2014, both teams stood at 5-6 with the winner earning bragging rights and bowl eligibility. The Wildcats were overpowered on both sides of the ball. Illinois picked up 438 total yards on offense and NU turned the ball over five times in a 47-33 loss.

“We’re close to being where we want to be, but close isn’t good enough,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game. “Our program is as stable and as strong as it’s ever been. We’ve got unbelievable leadership. The people haven’t changed, we just need to coach our guys to come out and execute more consistently, and I think we’ll be right back to where we were a few years ago.”

Since that game, the two programs have gone in opposite directions. The Cats have recorded a 44-27 record, won three bowl games and two Big Ten West titles. The Illini have gone 22-45, fired Tim Beckham — the victorious coach in that 2014 contest — and hired Lovie Smith, but have yet to post a winning season.

Not a single player on NU’s current roster knows the feeling of losing to its rival in college.

The Cats (5-1, 5-1 Big Ten) have won the last five Land of Lincoln games against Illinois (2-4, 2-4 Big Ten) and seven of the last eight overall. They hope to keep “The Hat” in Evanston for a sixth straight year this weekend before their second shot at a Big Ten title next Saturday.

“Anytime you play your rival, throw out what’s happened in the past, and throughout the current records,” Fitzgerald said. “This is a rivalry built on respect, I’ve got a ton of respect for Coach Smith … He’s done a terrific job, he’s rebuilding that program and it takes time to do those things, you can see the talent level that they have is as good as it’s ever been in my time here.”

So, what’s been the biggest difference maker for the Cats the past five years?

For senior wide receiver Kyric McGowan, it’s the team’s ability to enjoy playing the game it loves.

“We just went out there and had fun,” McGowan said. “It’s always fun to play in your big rivalry, in-state game. Secondly, we’ve just executed well every time and that’s just what we need to do moving forward.”

Playing clean football

One of the hallmarks of a Pat Fitzgerald football team is that the players don’t beat themselves. This has held true through NU’s sustained success over the past six years, and was notably evident last year when the Cats underperformed.

Fitzgerald said that giving the ball away and the points scored off those takeaways are extremely important in any game, but that it has proved particularly true over the past few rivalry games against Illinois.

NU lost the turnover battle 2-to-1 in 2015, but was still able to pull out a victory against the Fighting Illini to start the current winning streak. Since that game, the Cats have turned the ball over just three times in the rivalry, while forcing 10 turnovers on defense that have helped give the team momentum.

In 2016, NU forced four turnovers in a 42-21 rout of Illinois at home. Two years later, the Cats were on the brink of giving up an 18-point lead against Illinois at home and needed a stop late. Up by eight with under four minutes remaining, Paddy Fisher nabbed a crucial red zone interception — the lone turnover of the game — to clinch a victory for NU. The Cats iced the 2019 matchup with two turnovers on Illinois’ final two drives in the fourth quarter last season to win, despite having only won two games prior.

Illinois played sloppy football in its first two games this season and turned the ball over six times. But the Fighting Illini have only given the ball away once since then and have gone 2-2 over that stretch. This season, NU has only won the turnover battle twice, and was victorious in both games. But it lost two weeks ago when the turnover margin was -3.

In addition to turnovers, penalties have also proven costly for the Fighting Illini. Illinois has committed 29 penalties in the past five games compared to the Cats’ 13.

“(The Fighting Illini) present a lot of problems and a lot of challenges,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got to play much cleaner than we did last time we went out up in East Lansing. We’ll focus on ourselves, but I think turnovers have been a big key.”

Dominating the line of scrimmage

It’s no secret that NU’s inability to run the ball this season has been a top concern of those within the program and those outside of it.

The Cats kicked off the season with an earthquake. Against Maryland, the team rushed for 325 yards on 6.13 yards per carry, and four players ran for over 40 yards.

But since then, running the ball has been a laborious task for the halfbacks on each and every carry. In the past five games, NU has rushed for 458 yards combined and in its last three games has failed to average over two yards per carry.

Sticking to the fundamentals has been harped on by the offensive line throughout the season. With an unplanned bye week, the team worked on improving its technique so that this week it will win the 1-on-1 matchups it didn’t two weeks ago.

“Execution has been poor the last couple of weeks as, of course, the stat sheet shows,” senior lineman Nik Urban said. “One block away, one missed read away or something like that… every week we try an emphasis on running the ball, we just gotta get it done this week.”

Saturday’s matchup against Illinois will be an indictment of the positive strides taken by the offensive line ahead of next Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game versus a stout Ohio State defensive line.

Fitzgerald hopes that corrections to the technique results in explosive plays in the running game moving forward.

“As always, you gotta make teams one-dimensional,” Fitzgerald said. “You gotta be able to run the ball and stop the run. We’ve definitely got to get it going offensively and, outside of a couple of things cleaned up on defense, we’ve done that pretty well.”

If there’s a game for the Cats to get back on track on the ground, it’s against the Illini. NU has almost triply-exceeded the number of rushing yards the Fighting Illini gained over the past rivalry five games.

The Cats have rushed for 1,427 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns, while Illinois has rushed for just 403 yards and four touchdowns. Even Justin Jackson, having played just three games in this stretch, has rushed for 489 and five rushing touchdowns.

Last season’s battle was the epitome of what Fitzgerald talked about in his Monday press conference. On a rainy day in Champaign, NU ran for 378 yards with three rushers racking up at least 85 yards and held the Fighting Illini to just 14 total rushing yards.

“Up front, we’ve played some physical games against them,” Urban said. “We definitely got it done up front the past couple of years. So we just gotta keep it rolling.”

Coming out the gates firing

Fitzgerald has said many times that it’s hard to win in the Big Ten. But it’s even harder when you’re playing from behind.

Illinois knows the feeling of playing from behind against NU.

Aside from 2018, NU has ended each first quarter with a lead. The Fighting Illini scored the opening touchdown in 2016, but the Cats responded with three touchdown drives in a row, including two in the first quarter.

In the past five years, the Illini have held the lead for only 10:48 of game time — about the same amount of time as one segment of a Spongebob episode.

NU has scored on its opening drive in four of its six games this season — and the Cats are undefeated in those games. But in the two games where they didn’t score first, they’ve had to battle back from 17 points.

“We’ve put ourselves in some difficult positions by turning the ball over early,” Fitzgerald said. That’s put our back against the wall in a couple games and, like last week, we weren’t able to overcome that.”

Graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey was responsible for two of NU’s four turnovers last week. In order to lead his team to victory, Ramsey will have to be a spark for the team offensively and make the right decisions.

Ramsey may have never played for the Land of Lincoln Trophy, but he has battled for the Old Oaken Bucket — so he fully understands the expectations that come with a rivalry game. Come kickoff at 11 a.m. Saturday, he knows the offense has to be at its best and prepared for whatever the Illini throw at them.

“You’re always going to get your opponent’s best shot. Forget records, forget history, forget anything, they’re coming for you,” Ramsey said. “That’s the way it is. That’s what it’s always been. That’s my experience with rivalry games. So you got to be on top of it, you got to have a really good week of preparation because there might be some nuances, some wrinkles that you’re gonna see, because you want to beat your rival.”

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