SOC - Northwestern
It's the final SOC of the year. WAIT, NO IT'S NOT. BOWL GAME. Ok I'm going to be honest here. I knew when I started typing that this wasn't the last SOC of the year. But I wanted to pretend like it wasn't so I could act surprised when I "remembered" that we're already in a bowl game. I promise to do better in the future.
As I type this there's a thunderstorm outside my window in St. Louis. The forecast in Champaign for Saturday is basically the same as the forecast for the Purdue game back in October (rain, all day, and then more rain), except this one might include thunder so there's a chance we could see a lightning delay. It's probably going to be a sloppy one.
Now, of course, the rain will come in waves - heavy at times, light at times, so I guess there's a chance we could play through some of the lighter bands of rainfall. There's also a chance it's light rainfall when we wake up and then the heavy stuff starts coming down right at kickoff, so... it's going to rain. That's what you need to know.
I'm also assuming that Brandon Peters won't play. Really, after watching them hobble on and off the field last week, we don't know if Reggie Corbin, Josh Imatorbhebhe, or Tony Adams will be able to play. Jake Hansen is probably still out. Jamal Woods is probably still out. So maybe I should start with a rundown of the Illini injuries since it's all we'll hear about Northwestern tomorrow. Neither Northwestern nor Purdue are bowling, which is why we hear about how banged-up they are, but we're banged-up too, but it's a bowl eligible banged-up, which means no one talks about the injuries. But if we had an injury list for tomorrow (much speculation ahead, so be forewarned), I'm guessing it would look something like this:
When you have a roster of 85 and this many players show up on the injury list, it's the same "tough year with injuries" you're hearing about for Purdue and Northwestern. These things are much easier to point out during a bowl season - if we we're 4-7 right now, you'd see lots of STOP MAKING EXCUSES in the comments. When it hasn't stopped us from making a bowl game, it's just a statistic.
But since this is an "are we going to win tomorrow?" post, it's a significant statistic. I always try to go back to July and picture how I might predict this game with these injuries. If you told me this in July...
"Illinois will face Northwestern without Brandon Peters, without Epstein and maybe Corbin in the backfield, without Smalling, Sydney, Stampley, and possibly even Imatorbhebhe at receiver, and without Woods, Hansen, Adams, and Beason on defense", I would have told you that we're totally and completely sunk in this game. That's a ton of injuries.
I also wouldn't have known that Northwestern would be winless in the conference, so that certainly changes my perspective. Fast forward to today and my thinking is "if we were playing any team besides Rutgers or Northwestern, we're in trouble with this many injuries". Thankfully, the opponent is 2-9 Northwestern. We might be starting a second-string freshman quarterback, but Northwestern will be starting a fourth-string freshman quarterback.
While thinking about this prediction all day, that's where I'm stuck. We're so very injured right now, with the Peters concussion at Iowa being the big kicker. He might not be a world-beater QB, but against a Northwestern team that struggles to score, he'd be able to run an efficient-enough offense to play keep-away. With Robinson in there (if Robinson is in there, and I think Robinson will be in there), it brings bigger mistakes into play. Especially in the rain.
BUT, we're playing Northwestern. Our defense has gotten better and better as the season has gone on (using three NERDstats, the defense is now 49th in SP+, 35th in FPI, and 31st in FEI), and even the absence of Hansen and Adams has been overcome with the backups performing admirably. Now we play the worst offense in the Big Ten (yes, statistically worse than Rutgers). This is their fifth road game this year and in the other four road games they've scored 7, 15, 10, and 3 points. An offense averaging 8.8 ppg on the road shouldn't scare anyone.
Yet, because they're Northwestern and we're Illinois, I'm still worried. You're still worried. As we saw at Purdue, one bad throw from a backup quarterback standing on his own goal line can change an entire game. If it's Matt Robinson tomorrow, we can't have those two turnovers we saw against Michigan in the fourth quarter where he handed the ball to the opponent twice in the redzone. The key to tomorrow is making Northwestern drive the length of the field, which they likely cannot do. So it's one of those "third and 16 from our own 21? Can we just punt now please?" games. Especially in the rain.
Which is why, all week, I've been thinking this one is a loss. It just seems like all these injuries are going to catch up with us at some point, even if the opponent is 2-9. I woke up this morning thinking "if I knew Peters and Hansen were going to play, I'd predict a win, but I think both will be out, so I'm predicting a loss".
THEN I watched the hype video. And I saw some of the seniors tweeting things like "we're not done yet" and such. They're really focused on getting that hat back so it can be placed in the Smith Center next to that cannon. They don't want to be a senior class that never beat Northwestern. So I do think they smell blood here. Especially the defense.
So I've talked myself out of the loss. I just don't think Northwestern can score very much. I'm not sure we'll score much either - they have a decent defense - but I think these seniors are really dialed in and focused on getting that hat. So while I think it's close, I think we do pull it out. I predicted 7-5, so let's get to 7-5.
Illinois 20, Northwestern 13