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The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Football: What To Watch For: Northwestern heads to Illinois in hopes of taking back the Land of Lincoln Trophy

Angeli Mittal/The Daily Northwestern
Offensive linemen junior Caleb Tiernan and senior Josh Priebe fist bump before getting set at the line of scrimmage.

With momentum, energy and hopes at its highest since the 2020 season, Northwestern has one more task on the agenda before preparing for postseason play: a trip south to face its in-state foe, Illinois.

The Fighting Illini (5-6, 3-5 Big Ten) aren’t just another run-of-the-mill Big Ten West opponent. Their rivalry with the Wildcats (6-5, 4-4 Big Ten) dates back over a century.

Although Illinois has taken the Land of Lincoln Trophy back to Champaign in the last two contests, coach David Braun and NU bear a different type of mojo than in year’s past — and the proof is in the pudding.

Here are three storylines to follow before NU’s trek down I-57 to face the Fighting Illini this weekend: 

  1. Porter’s 2020-esque performance on Saturday ups the possibility of him surpassing 100 rush yards for the first time this season   

Senior running back Cam Porter returned to his freshman-like form on Saturday.

Whether it be back-to-back rushes that put the ‘Cats on the board first or his 34-yard burst through traffic for his second touchdown of the day, Porter finished with 17 carries for 95 yards alongside his two touchdowns. It was the most rushing yards in a game for him since December 2020.

The Cincinnati native credited his blockers for the successful day at the office.

“Kudos to the offensive line, they blocked their butts off and we were able to run the ball pretty well,” Porter said. “We knew they played a lot of man coverage, so if a crease was there and I was able to hit it, I knew I would be able to have an opportunity to score.”

Porter’s outing provides optimism for NU’s offense in the upcoming contest. With two of his top three yardage totals coming in the last two weeks, the rusher’s production has opened the offensive coordinator’s Mike Bajakian’s bag of tricks.

More importantly, though, it ups the chances of him finally eclipsing the 100 rushing yards mark in a game this season.

Porter has continually expressed his unbotheredness with not reaching triple digits, rather, his focus on serving the team in any way possible. Yet, don’t be mistaken, what running back wouldn’t want to reach that goal. 

“Let’s understand that efficiency leads to explosiveness when you trust it,” Braun said. “Credit to our offense for trusting that … it led to some great things there in the second half.”

  1. NU’s offensive line looks to build on strong half against Purdue, scraps first half woes

Sixth-year quarterback Ben Bryant couldn’t catch a break in the first 30 minutes of Saturday’s affair.

The quarterback was under pressure by the Boilermakers defense consistently, getting sacked five times in the half. Although he threw for 111 yards, the ‘Cats 11 total rushing yards by the intermission and zero points after the offense’s opening drive rang loud throughout Ryan Field.

Luckily for NU, that wasn’t the case in the second half.

“Our offensive line as the game went along did a great job of just anchoring in and finding time for Ben,” Braun said. “You can see a couple adjustments (like) that long touchdown by (sixth-year wideout) Cam Johnson.”

Braun initially attributed much of the 52-yard receiving touchdown to the veteran duo, emphasizing Bryant’s impressive recognition and Johnson’s yards-after catch. Right after, though, he broke down how the offensive line was the foundation of the play’s success — it gave Bryant time to hit the wideout with ease.

The ‘Cats offensive line undoubtedly won the trenches battle against the Boilermakers in the second half, surrendering zero sacks.

The group’s dominance also went hand-in-hand with the run game’s momentum and the offense’s ability to march down the field. In comparison to a strugglesome first half, NU cooked up 17 points and 88 rushing yards after the break.

“We said we were going to call some different things,” Bryant said of the team’s strategies in the second half. “The offensive line did a lot better and I’m very happy to be playing with those guys.”

  1. ‘Cats not setting sights on bowl game, but on taking the Land of Lincoln back to Evanston

After the jumbo-sized clock hit double zeros on Saturday, Ryan Field broke out into a frenzy. Students draped in purple rushed the field, players bowled their helmets down the sidelines and ‘David Braun’ chants came to life at midfield.

Of course, this was expected for a program reaching its first bowl game since 2020. Not to mention, a program coming off a 1-11 season and a chaotic summer –– to say the least. Even so, with postseason play already in store, some may view NU’s next regular season contest as a chance to take the foot off the gas pedal.

However, Johnson doesn’t think conversations of staying focused will be needed in the locker room. Porter reaffirmed this statement, reminding himself of last year’s 41-3 loss to their in-state rival.

“We didn’t come out on top last year, it left a bitter taste in my mouth,” Porter said. 

When Braun mentioned the rivalry week battle to his players in the locker room after last Saturday’s win, he could already tell that they were ready for war once again.

Outside of facing a rival like Illinois, with the Land of Lincoln Trophy on the line and another road game, the ‘Cats are fueled by everything that’s currently on the line. 

“There’s plenty of opportunities for us to stay laser focused on just our next opportunity,” Braun said. “There was an energetic group that I think fully understands that we still got one opportunity in front of us in the regular season (and) it’s a big one.”

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @LPIII_TRES 

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