Cats Corner: Illinois Divided


The Daily Northwestern’s Drew Schott and Lawrence Price speak with Jackson Janes and Josh Pietsch of The Daily Illini for Illinois Divided ahead of Saturday’s game between Northwestern and Illinois. This podcast is the go-to for Wildcats and Fighting Illini fans and a part of the Illinois Divided special edition between the two papers.

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JOSH PIETSCH: Welcome into a special edition of The Daily Illini Sports Podcast, joined with Cats Corner of The Daily Northwestern for a special episode for Illinois Divided. I’m Josh Pietsch joined over Zoom with Lawrence Price and Drew Schott from The Daily Northwestern and Jackson Janes from The Daily Illini. Thanks for being here guys.

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So we’re here together before Saturday’s game between Northwestern and Illinois, which is at Memorial Stadium in Champaign this year. And a theme between these teams, as two below-.500 teams, is that their offenses just have not gotten it together. Northwestern is averaging 16.8 points per game and Illinois 17.4. What’s really been wrong with these two offenses throughout the course of the year?

DREW SCHOTT: Well, to start off with Northwestern, I think the biggest question heading into this offseason was finding the solution at quarterback after Peyton Ramsey moving on. Ramsey threw for 12 touchdowns last year, more than 1,700 yards, led the Wildcats back to the Big Ten Championship Game and led them to a Citrus Bowl victory. 

Throughout the summer, it was known that it was going to be a three-man battle between Hunter Johnson, Andrew Marty and Ryan Hilinski, and a lot of people thought Hilinski, the former four-star quarterback and South Carolina transfer, was going to be the presumed starter, but it ended up being Johnson. But he only started three games before he was replaced by Marty, who got hurt in that same game and then was replaced by Hilinski. And within the last few games before the end of the season, we’ve seen a change between Marty and Hilinski. We’ve seen, including this weekend (against) Purdue, we saw Marty start the game to be relieved by Hilinski and then Marty came back in the game and then Hilinski finished the game. 

So, I think that’s been a main issue of Northwestern’s offensive struggles. And even though running back Evan Hull ranks near the top five of the Big Ten in rushing yards, I think getting consistency at quarterback play has been a huge issue for the Cats so far this season. Specifically, under center, when you look at the amount of yards, Hilinski has 855 on the season and three touchdowns. Marty has 707 and six touchdowns. And even though they’re going up against the worst passing attack in the Big Ten in Illinois, I think trying to answer this question about the future of quarterback, especially since Marty and Johnson are seniors and Hilinski is only a sophomore, is not a storyline that’s going to be relegated to the season. 

And I think that even though Northwestern has talented receivers like Stephon Robinson, who’s the team’s leading receiver, a grad transfer from Kansas, and junior Malik Washington, I think the struggles at quarterback are trickling down to offensive inefficiency as a whole.

JACKSON JANES: I think Illinois has very similar issues that Northwestern has — I think Illinois still struggles at the quarterback position. I mean, we saw that with Brandon Peters starting the year. I mean just the decision to start Peters over Isaiah Williams, who many people presumed would, kind of, take over that role after Peters’ struggles last season. Peters struggled at the beginning of the year. Art Sitkowski came in, was fine, I mean didn’t do anything particularly special. But then he broke his arm in that crazy Penn State (game) and now it’s back to Peters.

This team has really relied on its run game. Just throughout the year, Chase Brown has been huge. Josh McCray has kind of emerged as a true freshman that I don’t think many people expected him to contribute much this year. But Chase Brown has kind of been the main guy running back, especially over the last couple games. But the team really struggles when it’s not able to get its run game going. Like we saw that against Wisconsin. We saw that yesterday against Iowa. 

But I mean, if this team can get its run game going, I think teams really have issues stopping it. I mean, Minnesota is one of the best, has one of the best run defenses in the country, and Illinois put up big yards, several big chunk plays. I mean, they finished with over 100 yards, maybe 200. Yeah, I think this offense and Northwestern’s both have very similar issues with inconsistency at the quarterback position. But I mean we know that Peters is going to go from here on out so, I guess we’ll see what happens on Saturday between two teams that aren’t really fighting for a ton other than pride and the Land of Lincoln Trophy.

LAWRENCE PRICE: The thing Jackson and Drew both hit on, both points but going back to Jackson, I mean the Illinois run game has been much more consistent than Northwestern’s run game. Especially when we talk about the quarterback situation for both teams, this very spectacle we saw Andrew Marty for Northwestern play some, then Ryan Hilinski play some, both of them not really getting their footing in or solidifying their starting role. 

But then the run game was a little bit better against Purdue. Evan Hull had 96 yards, but in the last two games before that, he had less than 50 yards running on the ground. And you know, a run game in football is going to be essential. You’re going to need that to get going. You look at — just comparing the two — it’s just that Illinois’ run game has been much more consistent even though their pass game has been poor. And Northwestern has also been poor, but the run game hasn’t been there at times. 

Also, when the defense is not holding up their end of the bargain as well, it’s always going to be hard to win, and that’s why Northwestern has lost their last five games of the season.  

JOSH PIETSCH: Yeah, guys, I think you guys hit on mostly everything. I mean, when you have inconsistent quarterback play, it’s hard to win football games. Defensively, for these teams, it’s actually not been too bad. Northwestern’s allowing 27.4 points per game and Illinois 22.6. So even though these two teams aren’t necessarily winning games, they’re not giving up that many points. So with that being said, do we expect someone on each team to have a breakout game this year for the last game of the season? Or are we kind of expecting here some very low-scoring, boring grinder game on Saturday?

DREW SCHOTT: That’s what this rivalry is about, right? It’s a classic Big Ten game, playing for the Land of Lincoln Trophy. Northwestern has won the last two games 29-10 and 28-10. I think last year, they rushed for 411 yards on the ground, which was a program high since 2003. And that was with Cam Porter and Evan Hull. As Lawrence mentioned, Hull returns, but what really interests me is, as I mentioned, Northwestern’s struggling passing attack against Illinois’ struggling pass defense. 

When you look at Northwestern’s rushing offense ranking eighth in the conference and then Illinois rush defense ranking 11th in the conference, I’m really interested to see how these two offenses, as you mentioned, and defenses stack up to one another in terms of their success come Nov. 27. But I think the main thing you also have to look at is you have to look at the coaching matchup itself. I think Pat Fitzgerald, coaching this rivalry in his 16th year at Northwestern, I think understanding what it takes to play in a game like this is going to be key. And that Brett Bielema, who previously coached at Wisconsin, back with Illinois now, and who’s led Illinois to two top-25 upsets, I mean he’s impressive. 

Both teams have shown, especially Northwestern, have shown the ability to bounce back. I mean, look at 2019 and then 2020, so I’m interested. This is a resurging Illinois team. And I think that’s a narrative that’s very key to focus on because this is a game — if Illinois breaks the Northwestern win streak in this rivalry, which spans six seasons, I think it’ll be a big momentum boost that really shows the dynamic of where these two teams are now and where they’ll go in the future.

JACKSON JANES: Yeah, I don’t see this game being very high scoring. I think both offenses are just not that good. And I think both defenses are just good enough to stop both offenses. I mean, this Illinois team really strives on defense. The turnaround that this unit has had under Ryan Walters is unbelievable and he just deservedly got a contract extension recently. But I mean, Illinois beat Minnesota 14-6, and they scored both their touchdowns on the first two drives of the first quarter. I just don’t really see where the points are gonna come from. I could see another like, 14-10, 14-13, I don’t see either team breaking 20. I mean, maybe like 20 to 17, but I really don’t see either team scoring that many points. This Illinois team just has relied on its defenses in its wins, and in their losses, offense also hasn’t really carried its weight either. So I feel like I don’t know where the points are going to come from for either team to score an outlandish number of points.

LAWRENCE PRICE: I agree with you, Jackson. You’re not going to win any football game and Northwestern, they’ve had a terrible season, right? But if they beat Illinois, it’s not too bad. But again — a low-scoring game. Who’s going to get the points? I mean, Northwestern, the offense has been struggling and the defense has not put up a consistent 60 minutes of great play. We saw it against Purdue, a great first half. It was a one-score game. Michigan, first half, great one-score game, very close game, but they were not able to come out of the half and produce another good 30 minutes. The defense can’t get it going and then the offense can’t get it going, what’s going to happen? You’re going to take an “L,” and we’ve seen that consistently. But I think that when you look at both teams, Illinois just has a few more things that they’ve done right than Northwestern’s been able to do or been able to play a little bit more consistently than Northwestern has been able to this season.

JOSH PIETSCH: Yeah, I think you guys hit on pretty much everything. We’ve seen two teams that have been able to kinda score early a little bit and then get figured out very fast and then that kinda leading to the other team having good field position. And I think Illinois’ games have ended up being mostly a little bit closer than Northwestern’s, but it’s just so frustrating for each team having to rely on that defense. But Drew, you talked about the coaching for a second. I just wrote a column about everything Pat Fitzgerald’s done in his past 15 years compared to what Illinois’ done. And it’s just easy to see that Northwestern has dominated this matchup, has dominated bowl game appearances, everything like that. So for the Northwestern folks, why has Pat Fitzgerald been able to dominate this rivalry over the past 15, 16 years? And then Jackson, what is Bielema going to have to do to, you know, make this a more competitive rivalry?

JACKSON JANES: I guess first off, just to talk about Illinois’ perspective, I think one thing that Illinois really struggled with under Lovie Smith was that he just didn’t know how to recruit the state of Illinois. And I feel like now that Bielema has put a lot more emphasis, he’s separated different zones in the state, given that to each of the different coordinators and assistants and really emphasized the need to get out and establish those relationships with high school coaches around the state.

We didn’t really see that with Lovie, but the fact that in-state recruiting is such a big emphasis under Bielema is definitely promising. And I feel like that’s definitely something to look forward to and just watch over the next few years as Bielema slowly turns this program around. I don’t think many people expected him to come in with the talent, or maybe lack thereof, that you had based on last year’s team and Lovie Smith’s recruiting, but I think just the in-state recruiting is just an area that Illinois has really, really struggled with over the last couple years. I think it’s going to be something to watch and potentially could be something that could turn the tides in the rivalry going forward.

LAWRENCE PRICE: I mean, look at coach Pat Fitzgerald. When he played at Northwestern, he was a linebacker. He was the middle of that defense and he was that leader and I see, you know, he still has those attributes now as a coach. He knows how to lead, and even though Northwestern’s not the school that’s gonna get you those five-stars, most likely not many four-stars, but he’s going to be able to develop his guys into playing like those five-stars and compete against those five-stars. So I think we’ve just seen throughout the years with coach Fitzgerald, he just knows how to coach his team. Like they always, in the press conferences, all the players emphasize fundamentals. If they’re talking about defense, it’s tackling. It’s those little things that he makes sure that they really hone in on. So of course, the season has not looked good for Northwestern, but when the game’s on the line and when you need a coach that’s going to be able to get you through that situation or say that I’ve been there, I know what to do, coach Fitzgerald’s been able to do (that). But of course, Northwestern, they haven’t really been able to catch a break. I mean, out of the gate against Michigan State, you can’t really predict Kenneth Walker III is going to be this Heisman candidate that he is. I thought he was going to be pretty good. 

I was talking to Drew before the game, who really thought that Northwestern was going to run over Michigan State, and I said I don’t think that’s really going to happen. But when you got Michigan State then, look at the last three games. They’ve had to go up against a great Minnesota team, a great Iowa team and a pretty solid Purdue team. They never have gotten the chance to catch a break and really collect themselves and really put a good brand of football together or just verse a team that’s a little bit more of their caliber at the season. And I think Illinois fits into that category. So if Northwestern is able to or wants to finish on a high note and get that chance to verse a team that might be a little bit, you know, worse than a Wisconsin or worse than a Purdue, Iowa, a Michigan, even, this is their chance. And I think coach Fitzgerald knows that, and I think he’s just a great coach in general. He’s been able to do it all these years and produce talent and play to a caliber or a tier that not many coaches are able to do.

DREW SCHOTT: Slight amendment Lawrence, I did not pick Northwestern to run over Michigan State. I thought they would win, but it seems the 38-21 game ended differently than I thought. But it was really interesting what you said about player development. Last year before Pro Day, when Rashawn Slater worked out, when Greg Newsome II worked out — they were both first round picks — when everybody who worked out eventually made their way onto an NFL roster at training camp, Fitz says, “We have the best player development staff in the country” and the stats are there to back it up. 

If you look at 2020, if you look at the starting linebacking corps of Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin, that was one of the most experienced trios, if not the most experienced in college football and now Bergin is back and is one of the leading tacklers in, in the NCAA. But you’re replacing starters this season at wide receiver, quarterback, running back, left guard, right guard, defensive end, cornerback, safety and I think that’s a hallmark of what this program is going to be able to do within maybe next year or a few years, you’re going to see the players who are thrown into the fire now become much stronger players, possibly even All-Big Ten candidates and I think that’s something really important that coach Fitzgerald harps upon, as well as his ability to recruit the state of Illinois. Jackson, you mentioned the struggles of the Illini in the Lovie Smith era. And something that’s really interesting that Bret Bielema did is his of the slogan of family but with the ILL and that’s something that really is interesting to show that he really is focused, being an Illinois native himself and knowing the Big Ten and having (coached) at Iowa and played there and being a graduate assistant and having coached at Wisconsin, I think that’s really important. Fitz, you can look at some of the Illinois players he’s gotten, high profile four-stars like Clayton Thorson, Justin Jackson, Devin O’Rourke, who’s on the defensive line. And then a fringe five-star like Peter Skoronski. I think those are where the coaching key is, I think it’s development. 

And going off your point, development and recruitment are incredibly important, but also getting your team ready for the rivalry game. Last year after winning the Land of Lincoln Trophy for the sixth time, this game means so much to this team, and that’s very palpable, and that’s probably what we’re gonna see from Northwestern and Illinois this week. This is your rivalry game, especially in a time where Northwestern at least, but Illinois too is basically out of bowl contention. Winning a rivalry game means something. The stakes are huge. This year, (if) Northwestern wins its seventh in a row and it ties the overall series at 55 apiece. I think getting your team ready for a rivalry game is key. Playing close in the Big Ten, I think that both teams have showed that. Northwestern has played some Big Ten opponents close like Iowa and Illinois has beaten ranked Big Ten opponents like Penn State in the nine-overtime game in State College and Minnesota. So, I think all those things are going to play a factor in how this rivalry develops and I think it’ll be really interesting when looking back in two or three years at where Fitzgerald and Bielema have their programs. Because certainly Illinois having a better record than Northwestern this season was not something many people predicted and even though this may be a down year for Northwestern — who has shown the ability to bounce back — this is definitely a statement year, even though they’re not going to a bowl game for the Illini, and it’ll be interesting to see how you see the rosters pan out and the players be recruited and the emphasis on Big Ten play span out over the tenures of these two coaches.

JACKSON JANES: Something interesting on that note is that this team, this Illinois team, has the most super-seniors in the country, I think 22? Something around there. And the fact that none of them have ever had the experience of beating Northwestern in this rivalry I think is going to be really interesting and important. Just talking to some of the players over the last couple of weeks, I mean, their time in Illinois has been crazy. I mean, it’s been very interesting, whether it be coaching changes, Doug Kramer recently is someone who I talked to but he came in when the team was, like, 2-10, 3-9. I mean, made a bowl game, made almost fifty starts, I mean, you don’t have many teams who can say that their linemen have made fifty-something starts. Something I’ll look at is that Illinois is losing, like, 20-plus players next year, and most of them are starters. So I mean, it’ll definitely be interesting to see how this Illinois team fares on Saturday, but also just, moving forward, how they’re going to cope with losing so many of their big contributors next season.

JOSH PIETSCH: Yeah, having that many super-seniors has been interesting, and that probably is one of the reasons Illinois has gotten — while they’re not going to make a bowl game, we know that, at least they’re not going to go .500, you know, some weird stuff could happen for Illinois to get in there. Northwestern definitely isn’t but, like you said Drew, this game is what’s probably gonna determine for Northwestern and Illinois if this was a somewhat productive season, right? Because Northwestern is down this year, they do this every once in a while, but at least in my history of watching college football, Pat Fitzgerald has improved his teams drastically from the beginning of the year, which is why he’s always a threat. You look back in 2019 when they played, about half of Illinois’ roster was out but Northwestern was just able to run the ball down Illinois throats. And then Northwestern goes in the next year, 2020, and makes the Big Ten Championship game. Where for Illinois, 4-8 and 5-7, at least in my eyes, are very, they’re two very different records because if they do end up beating Northwestern, you’re like, “Hey, we were only one game away from a Bowl Game and our new coach’s first year.” So I think it’s gonna be really interesting.

JOSH PIETSCH: So before we wrap this up, just from each of you guys, want (to give) just a little key to the game topped off with a score prediction for Saturday.

LAWRENCE PRICE:  Rushing on offense and defense for Northwestern. Rushing the ball, you need to get the run game going. You need to get Evan Hull, Andrew Clair, Anthony Tyus III  going. One of the three needs to get going if you want your offense to run smoothly. We’re not sure of course who’s going to be at quarterback, but if you can get the run game going, then you’ll be in a good spot. But Northwestern ranks last in run defense. When Illinois’ been able to run, when they win, they run the ball very, very well. It’s really going to come down to if Northwestern can stop the run. If they can stop the run, they have a good chance of pulling out the big victory and the trophy. But if you can’t, I think the run game in any type of way is going to be very important in this matchup. 

JACKSON JANES: Like Lawrence, I think the run game is going to be the name of the game. I just don’t see the offense being anywhere near competent if the run game isn’t 100%. I mean, like we saw over the last couple of games, Brandon Peters can kind of throw the ball a few times. I wouldn’t say I would rely on him to lead an offense for the entirety of a game. But I mean, his ability to just throw the ball, even if it’s just 10 times per game, is going to be the difference. If I had to make the score prediction, I’d say 17-14 Illinois. I think it’s going to be low scoring and it’s going to be ugly. 

DREW SCHOTT:  I completely agree with you both. I think the key is going to be Northwestern’s rush defense. Well, one of the keys is going to be Northwestern’s rush defense stopping the Fighting Illini rushing attack led by Chase Brown, who currently is not more than 900 yards on the season. Northwestern getting pressure on quarterback Brandon Peters is going to be the key. Adetomiwa Adebawore, Northwestern’s top defensive lineman, has had a stellar season. The linebacking corps, I think Chris Bergen with the season he’s had, what he’s meant to this program, this game is going to mean a lot to him. I think Northwestern’s defense, with all the struggles that they’ve had this year, giving up the most yards under the Fitzgerald era in Nebraska, giving up the big second half outburst to Michigan, giving up 35 points to Wisconsin, I think they’re looking for a statement performance. And I think they’re going to need one to kind of end this season on a high note if they want to get that fourth win and that meaningful fourth win against their rival. And I think that’s going to work because as we saw last year, having a top 10 scoring defense in 2020, if the defense plays at a high level that will affect how the offense runs and I think Northwestern’s defense, as a send off to some of  the players who have been part of this program for so long, like Bergin, like defensive lineman Joe Spivak. I think this is going to be a game in which they look to show that this defense is definitely not out for the count and they’re going to hopefully use that game to rebound for the 2022 season.

JOSH PIETSCH: Yeah, I’m with you guys. Like, to say it a little bit more specifically, I think the key is going to be Illinois’ offensive line and Northwestern’s defensive line. Because if Illinois’ offensive line isn’t going to be able to hold Northwestern, the run game won’t do well and the pass game, which has potential as we’ve seen throughout the last couple games for Illinois. If that gets stopped, Illinois’ not winning this game because Brandon Peters threw for above 200-odd yards for only the sixth time in his career. He did that last week. So if Illinois can get some good blocking in on a good Northwestern defensive line, in my opinion, and Brandon Peters throws the ball effectively and the run game does their thing, I think Illinois should win. But I think Northwestern has a good defense. I think Pat Fitzgerald is gonna have his team as prepared as ever, and I think it’s gonna be really close. I am probably taking Illinois. I’m going to go 21-17 Illinois.

DREW SCHOTT: I’m actually going to go with 20-17 Northwestern. I’m going to go with one of the closest Land of Lincoln games in a little while.

LAWRENCE PRICE: I’m gonna go 17-14 Illinois. I, honestly, a few weeks ago I said Northwestern and I could see Northwestern winning this game. I think it’s going to be a really close matchup but I think that if Illinois’ run game gets going like we’ve seen before, I haven’t seen Northwestern defense put up 60 minutes of consistent play since Rutgers on defense. So, I think it’s possible, but I’m just going to go with Illinois here.

JOSH PIETSCH: Alright, so our consensus is Illinois. I guess we’ll see what happens, but that’s all the time we have today. Drew, Jackson, Lawrence, really appreciate you guys being on here and to our audience, thank you for tuning in to this joint episode of Cats Corner and the Daily Illini sports podcast. 

DREW SCHOTT: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Drew Schott. Thanks for listening to this episode of Cats Corner. This episode was reported by me, Drew Schott, Lawrence Price, Sammi Boas, Jackson Janes and Josh Pietsch. This episode was produced by Sammi Boas. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Jordan Mangi. The digital managing editors are Alex Chun and Sammi Boas. The editor in chief is Isabelle Sarraf. You can listen to The Daily’s podcasts on SoundCloud, Spotify and Apple Music. 

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