CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — No. 23 Northwestern is on a six-game winning streak for the first time since 1996 and running back Justin Jackson is in rare territory as only the second Big Ten to player to rush for 1,000 yards in four consecutive seasons.
Illinois has made some history of its own in season where wins have been hard to come by and the Illini (2-9, 0-8 Big Ten) are a two-touchdown underdog for Saturday’s game against their in-state rival. The Wildcats (8-3, 6-2) are hoping to win 10 games and Jackson, a senior averaging 91.8 rushing yards and 23 receiving yards per game, is a big part of it.
Last week in a 38-0 win over Minnesota – Northwestern’s most lopsided victory since 1970 – he became just the sixth player in Big Ten history to rush for 5,000 yards in his career. Only Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne of Wisconsin has also rushed for 1,000 yards in four consecutive seasons in Big Ten play.
Wildcats coach and former linebacker Pat Fitzgerald played against Dayne in college.
“I think (Jackson’s) career obviously speaks for itself,” Fitzgerald said. “I didn’t tackle Ron very well, so, that puts him in pretty rare air.”
Jackson has 5,139 career rushing yards and needs just two more to pass Wisconsin’s Monte Ball as the fourth all-time leading rusher in Big Ten history.
Illinois has started 16 true freshmen this year – shattering its previous program record of nine set in 1980 – and an additional 10 redshirt freshmen. Illinois has lost nine straight, but coach Lovie Smith knows he’s given his young charges important experience. He said he also believes the matchup gives Illinois – especially its seniors – a final chance to play for something meaningful.
“We can’t complain about the effort we’ve gotten throughout,” Smith said. “The story has been, ‘Not been able to finish football games.'”
The Illini have started four different quarterbacks this year and have never been able to establish an offensive identity.
Chayce Crouch – who lost his starting spot after Illinois’ fourth game of the season – regained his starting role last week in place of injured quarterbacks Jeff George Jr. and Cam Thomas.
But he also left the game against Ohio State with an injury, making way for freshman Cam Miller. Trailing by 45, Miller scored a nine-yard rushing touchdown on his first career play from scrimmage.
Thomas is expected to return against the Wildcats, pushing Miller back down the depth chart. But regardless of who starts or plays, Smith wants those on the field to leave it all out there.
“It all comes out to this game,” Smith said. “There’s one more, no tomorrow.”
Last week, Northwestern earned its eighth victory of the season and 25th win over the last three years — best in a three-year span in more than 100 years. The Wildcats also have the opportunity to win 10 games for the second time in three years, if they can beat the Illini and their bowl opponent.
Jackson garners most of the attention, but Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson has shown he can get the job done through the air. He is one of just five quarterbacks in the Big Ten averaging over 200 passing yards per game. This season, he has thrown 14 touchdowns with 11 interceptions, but over the past two games he’s thrown four touchdowns and zero picks.
OLD STOMPING GROUNDS
Illinois offensive coordinator Garrick McGee spent four seasons (2004-2007) as a part of the Northwestern coaching staff. In his first two years, he was the wide receivers coach before being promoted to offensive coordinator by former head coach Randy Walker.
Linebacker Nate Hall earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after posting seven tackles, 2.5 sacks, an interception and his first career fumble recovery last week against Minnesota. He is the Wildcat’s second leading tackler this season and leads the Big Ten with 12 solo tackles for loss.
Northwestern’s red zone offense is ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten and ninth in the nation. The Wildcats have scored on 44 of their 47 trips (93.6 percent) inside the 20, including 34 touchdowns. They have also made 10 of 11 field goal attempts and only turned it over twice. No other team in conference has scored on 90 percent of its appearances in the red zone. Illinois is ranked third in red zone offense, but is tied with Rutgers for the least amount of trips inside the 20.
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