The No. 19 Wildcats (7-4, 7-1 Big Ten) play host to Illinois (4-7, 2-6) on Saturday in Evanston, Ill., to close the regular season.
Northwestern has won six of its past seven games, losing only to Notre Dame in that stretch.
Despite having already clinched the Big Ten West division, Northwestern took care of business last week with a 24-14 win at Minnesota, matching its best conference record since 1995. The Wildcats will honor 19 seniors on Saturday, including quarterback Clayton Thorson, who is the only quarterback in Big Ten history to reach 10,000 passing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns.
Thorson is the winningest quarterback in Northwestern history with 34 career victories.
“It’s definitely weird saying it will be my last game at Ryan Field, especially with two more games coming after this,” Thorson said. “But I’ve got a lot of great memories here, especially this year, so it’ll be a pretty cool day.”
Illinois, meanwhile, limps into its season finale, coming off a 63-0 home loss to Iowa on Senior Day. In the most disheartening result of head coach Lovie Smith’s third season in Champaign. Illinois turned the ball over four times and allowed a punt return touchdown.
The 63-point margin of defeat was tied for the worst loss in program history, joining a 63-0 loss in 1906 to the University of Chicago.
Smith is 9-26 in his third season at Illinois, and this four-win season marks the best victory total of his time in Champaign. He has a 4-22 record in Big Ten play.
While there is plenty of speculation about whether he should be retained, a key factor could be that he still has three years left on his initial six-year contract.
“Talking about where we are right now, we’re coming off a disappointing loss. You look at the season, we have four wins this year, so that’s reality right now,” Smith said. “We have an opportunity to finish with a good taste in our mouth. The state of the program is disappointing right now but we see brighter days ahead.”
Thorson is coming off one his most efficient games of the season, completing 15 of 21 passes for 230 yards — and seems to be at his best after starting the season slowly as he made his way back from last season’s ACL injury.
“Their team has had an outstanding year,” Smith said, “but hopefully for us that puts us in a good position after disappointment you can finish the season up the right way beating your rival.”
Controlling the line of scrimmage should be key.
Northwestern, with freshman running back Isaiah Bowser stepping in after the fourth game for Jeremy Larkin (medical retirement), ranks 124th nationally in rushing with 101.5 yards per game. But running right at Illinois’ young defense — the entire unit has just one senior — is the way to go.
The Illini are 121st nationally against the run, allowing 243.8 yards per game.
Illinois’ running game has been much improved this season under first-year coordinator Rod Smith, a zone-read guru, but Illinois’ backfield is banged-up right now, making the job even more difficult.
Sophomore Ra’Von Bonner ran for a career-high 96 yards against Iowa. Quarterback AJ Bush is a dual threat, having run for 187 yards earlier this month against Nebraska, a school record for a quarterback.
Northwestern is 33rd nationally against the run (132.9 rushing yards per game).
The Wildcats have won three straight against the Illini, including last year’s 42-7 victory in Champaign. They have played for the Land of Lincoln trophy since 2009 after vying for the “Sweet Sioux” Tomahawk, which was awarded from 1947-2008 in this state rivalry.
“It means a lot,” said Northwestern left guard J.B. Butler. “Being an in-state guy, Illinois recruits a lot of guys from my area, so I’ve got a lot of friends that play there. It definitely means a lot and I’m excited to have the chance to go 4-0 against them. I think that’s a cool thing.”
Northwestern will play the winner of Michigan-Ohio State in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis on Dec. 1.