Follow along with beat writer Scott Richey from Evanston as Illinois tries to do its part to keep its Big Ten West title hopes alive:
Illinois is a little healthier for its regular season finale than it was a week ago. Wide receiver Pat Bryant and cornerback Tyler Strain both made the trip to Evanston, and a team spokesman said they were “back” for the Illini.
A healthy Strain means a little bit more just because of Illinois’ sudden depth issues at cornerback with Taz Nicholson and Terrell Jennings both unavailable. The Illini used true freshman Xavier Scott at Michigan. Strain doesn’t have all that much more experience, but he’s at least in his second year with Ryan Walters’ defense.
Casey Washington filled in admirably with Bryant unavailable last week, but Bryant is second-leading wide receiver behind Brian Hightower. The Jacksonville, Fla., native has caught 31 passes for 420 yards this season.
It will again be the Chase Brown show at running back, though, with Josh McCray not making the trip to Evanston. Brown would have gotten the bulk of the carries, but McCray’s continued absence has impacted Illinois’ depth in the backfield.
Simply playing Northwestern might be enough for Illinois to snap its three-game losing streak. The Wildcats might start its fourth string walk-on at quarterback (not that it would matter … they’ve all struggled), and, it bears repeating that they haven’t won on U.S. soil this season.
But, rivalry game, Hat on the line, etc., ect. … Illinois can’t sleep on Northwestern. There are several areas the Illini can be better than they’ve been in the last three games to get off the schneid.
As always, turning move-the-chains drives into scoring drives (touchdowns > field goals) has to be a priority. It’s been a struggle all season. While the offense has improved under Barry Lunney Jr., the scoring hasn’t picked up all that much. Now is as good a time as any to figure out how to be better in the red zone.
Playing for keeps. #Illini // #HTTO // #famILLy pic.twitter.com/NKNkpZlvvP
— Illinois Football (@IlliniFootball) November 26, 2022
There are nine NFL personnel scheduled to be in Evanston for today’s game. That group includes representatives from the Tennessee Titans, Atlanta Falcons, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and five from the Chicago Bears. They must enjoy having a Big Ten team close … at least to scout the opposing team’s players.
Because that’s almost certainly the case today. The 1-10 Wildcats aren’t exactly moving the NFL needle. Illinois has several guys that are, including cornerback Devon Witherspoon (maybe playing his way into the first round), running back Chase Brown, defensive tackle Johnny Newton and safeties Quan Martin and Sydney Brown. And maybe a couple more.
How Big Ten West is this final two days of the regular season? Iowa could have clinched a division title Friday with a home win against Nebraska.
But there the Cornhuskers were playing spoiler. The Nebraska win pushed Iowa out of the title conversation (momentarily) and opened the door for Purdue and Illinois.
The Illini need some more help, of course. The Big Ten West championship trophy will only make its way to Champaign if Purdue loses this afternoon. That Illinois-Northwestern and Purdue-Indiana will happen simultaneously only bumps up the drama level.
Of course, should both Illinois and Purdue lose, the Big Ten West title will revert to the Hawkeyes. Unless its the Boilermakers left standing at the top, somebody is going to back their way into a title.
It didn’t have to be like this for Illinois. Home games against Michigan State and Purdue presented the opportunity to win the division outright. It would have been the first in program history. But … the Illini lost both. Another loss last week at Michigan made it three in a row.
Remember when Illinois was 7-1 and had the world on a string? Seems like forever ago. But the dream isn’t yet totally dead. Better come to terms with rooting for the Hoosiers, Illini fans.
Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is [email protected], and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).