Game notes: Illini host Northwestern in season finale

(From Fighting Illini Sports Information Department)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Illinois football team hosts Northwestern on Saturday as part of rivalry week in the Big Ten. The teams kickoff at 2:30 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network with the Land of Lincoln Trophy on the line.

Illinois (4-7, 3-5 Big Ten) is looking to win "The Hat" trophy for the first time since 2014. The Illini are coming off a 33-23 road loss to #18 Iowa with the absence of head coach Bret Bielema, who was out due to COVID-19. Bielema is expected to return to the Illinois sideline this weekend, as the Illini are still in the hunt for a bowl game if not enough teams get to six wins.

Illinois is still in hunt for a bowl in large part due to a much improved defense. Illinois' defense has made a 12.3-point improvement from last season (34.9 ppg to 22.6 ppg), the ninth-best points per game improvement in the nation, and the Illini's scoring defense (97th to 41st), total defense (114th to 66th), and third-down defense (89th to 37th) have all improved 48 or more spots in the national rankings. Safety Kerby Joseph has been one of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten, as the junior is tied for the national lead in interceptions and is the #1 graded defensive back in the nation by PFF in his first season as a starter.

Big Ten Network has the television broadcast with Jeff Levering (play-by-play), J Leman (analyst), and Elise Menaker (reporter) on the call. The Busey Bank Illini Sports Network will have the radio call featuring Brian Barnhart (play-by-play), Martin O'Donnell (analyst), and Michael Martin (sideline).

ILLINOIS STATS AND NOTES

DEFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT

  • Illinois' defense has made a 12.3-point improvement from last season (34.9 ppg to 22.6 ppg), the ninth-best points per game improvement in the nation. The 13.3 ppg improvement is the program's third-best improvement since 1950.
  • Illinois has allowed 19.5 points in Big Ten games, the sixth-best in the conference. Last season, Illinois allowed 34.9 points allowed per Big Ten game, ranking last in the conference.
  • Illinois has held nine of its 11 opponents under their season scoring average.
  • Illinois' total defense has improved by 89.7 yards per game (467.3 to 377.6).
  • Illinois' scoring defense (97th to 41st), total defense (114th to 66th), and third-down defense (89th to 37th) have all improved 48 or more spots in the national rankings.
  • Illinois snapped a streak of holding opponents to 24 points or fewer in seven straight games when the Illini allowed 33 at Iowa, which scored 14 of its points on defense and special teams. Last year's Illini team allowed 24 points or fewer twice in eight games.
  • Illinois' defense allowed only 48 points (12.0) in regulation of its four Big Ten road games this season, including only four TDs by opposing offenses in Big Ten road games.
  • Illinois allowed only 2.5 yards per carry in Big Ten road games this year (142 carries, 361 yards) and only 1.7 yards per carry in the fourth quarter of those games (31 carries, 52 yards).

BIG WINS IN THE B1G

  • With wins at Penn State (#7 AP) and at Minnesota (#20 CFP), the Illini are one of four teams to win two AP/CFP ranked road games this season (Boise State, Fresno State, Mississippi State).
  • Penn State and Minnesota were two of Illinois' eight games against bowl-eligible teams, tied for the sixth-most bowl opponents in the nation.

CHASE BROWN CHASES HISTORY

  • Chase Brown's 223-yard rushing game at Penn State marked his second game of the season with 200+ yards (257 vs. Charlotte). He joined Howard Griffith (1990) and Rashard Mendenhall (2007) as the only players in Illinois history with multiple 200-yard rushing games in a single season.
  • Brown's 223 rushing yards at Penn State were the most ever by an opponent at Beaver Stadium and the fourth-most ever against Penn State.
  • Brown's 147 rushing yards at Minnesota were the most by an opponent at Minnesota since 2017.
  • Brown is the first Illini in history to run for 220+ yards twice in a career. He did it in the span of three games this season.
  • Brown led the nation in yards after contact in Week 8 with 145 at Penn State, according to PFF. He has led the nation in yards after contact twice in a four-week span in October and he is the only running back to lead the nation in yards after contact twice this season.
  • Brown is one of seven players in FBS to have two 200-yard rushing games this season.
  • Brown is 21st in the nation and third in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (99.2).
  • Brown has 1,451 rushing yards for his career at Illinois, No. 28 on Illinois' all-time career rushing list. Brown also tallied 352 yards as a freshman at Western Michigan for 1,806 for his career.

TAKEAWAY KING

  • Kerby Joseph is the only player in the nation with 5+ interceptions and 3+ fumble recoveries.
  • Joseph is tied for the national lead in interceptions (5) and second in the nation in fumble recoveries (3).
  • Joseph is the #1 graded defensive back in the nation by PFF and the #4 defender in the nation.
  • Joseph is one of only three Illini in the last 50 years to record 5+ interceptions and 3+ fumble recoveries in a single season, joining Muhammad Abdullah (1999) and Mike Gow (1974).
  • Joseph is the first Big Ten player since 1999 to record 5+ interceptions and 3+ fumble recoveries in a single season (Illinois' Muhammad Abdullah).
  • Joseph's three fumble recoveries are tied for the 10th-most in Illinois history (stat since 1971).
  • Joseph has at least one takeaway in seven of Illinois' 11 games this season.

ISAIAH GAY'S BIG GAME

  • Isaiah Gay had 5.5 TFLs at Iowa, the third-most TFLs in a game in Illinois history.
  • Gay's 5.5 TFLs set the Illinois record for TFLs in a Big Ten game.
  • Gay's 5.5 TFLs tied for the most TFLs in a Big Ten game this season (Purdue's Leo Chenal, 5.5, at Wisconsin) and tied for the most TFLs in a Power-5 vs. Power-5 game this season.
  • Gay's 5.5 TFLs are the second-most TFLs in a game in college football this season (Missouri's Blaze Alldredge, 6.0, vs. Central Michigan).

CARNEY'S BEST SEASON

  • Owen Carney Jr. has 6.5 sacks on the season, ranking fifth in the Big Ten in sacks.
  • Carney is ninth in Illini history in career sacks with 16.0.
  • Carney passed his career high for sacks in a season (5.0, 2020).

OFFENSIVE LINE

  • Illinois is 11th in the nation in run blocking grade, according to PFF (83.3).
  • Doug Kramer is the No. 30 graded center in the nation according to PFF (73.7) (min. 450 snaps). Kramer has the No. 20 run blocking grade in the nation among centers (77.4).
  • Alex Palczewski is the No. 29 graded tackle in the nation according to PFF (79.5) (min. 440 snaps), although he played guard in the last four games. Palczewski has the No. 10 run blocking grade in the nation among tackles (89.5).
  • Vederian Lowe is the No. 35 graded tackle in the nation according to PFF (78.7) (min. 450 snaps). Lowe was the highest graded offensive lineman in the nation in Week 5 against Charlotte (93.7).
  • Jack Badovinac is the No. 37 graded guard in the nation according to PFF (73.9) (min. 450 snaps).

HAYES - RAY GUY SEMIFINALIST

  • Illinois is 11th in the nation in net punting (43.2).
  • Blake Hayes is one of 10 semifinalists for the Ray Guy Award.
  • Hayes will leave Champaign with nearly every Illinois record. He is currently the Illinois record holder in career punting average, career punt yards, career punts inside the 20, career 50+ yard punts, season punt yards, season punts inside the 20,  and season 50+ yard punts.

MAN OF THE YEAR

  • Vederian Lowe is one of 20 semifinalists for the Jason Witten Man of the Year Award, the college football version of the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
  • Lowe and his wife Haylee have two children, Kingston and Trey.
  • Lowe adopted his younger brother, Vydalis, after the passing of their mother, Veneka, and officially gained guardianship in July 2021.

ALL-TIME SERIES

ILLINOIS vs. NORTHWESTERN

  • Series: Illinois leads, 55-54-5
  • Last: #15 Northwestern 28, Illinois 10 (12/12/20)
  • Streak: Northwestern W6
  • at Champaign: Illinois leads, 26-23-2
  • Bielema vs. Northwestern: 2-1
  • Saturday's game will be the 115th meeting between Illinois and Northwestern.
  • Illinois leads the all-time series 55-54-5.
  • Last season, Illinois had six of 11 defensive starters unavailable during their December trip to Evanston. The Illini rushed for 155 yards and forced one turnover but fell 28-10, before Lovie Smith was fired the following day.
  • In Illinois' last home game against the Wildcats, Northwestern spoiled Senior Day with a 29-10 win at Memorial Stadium. Senior linebacker Dele Harding led the Illini defense with a game-high 15 tackles Saturday, including 1.0 TFL. On offense Dre Brown scored six-yard touchdown run to give the Illini the lead during the second quarter. Illinois was outscored 26-3 after that.
  • Illinois' last win in the series was a 47-33 victory in Evanston in 2014 . Prior to that Illinois' two previous wins over Northwestern came in incredible fashion. In 2011, the Illini rebounded from a 28-10 third-quarter deficit to beat Northwestern 38-35 after Nathan Scheelhaase's one-yard touchdown plunge with 13 seconds left in the game. In 2010, the Illini crushed the Wildcats 48-27 at Wrigley Field in Chicago behind Mikel Leshoure's record-breaking 330 rushing yards. It was the first college game played at Wrigley Field in 40 years and was famously played one way, as all offensive drives went toward the west end zone due to safety concerns with the wall behind the east end zone.
  • Illinois' most receiving yards vs. Northwestern (since 1945): 268 A.J. Jenkins 10/1/2011
  • Illinois' most rushing yards vs. Northwestern (since 1945): 330 Mikel Leshoure 11/20/2010
  • Illinois' most passing yards vs. Northwestern (since 1945): 409 Tony Eason 11/21/1981
  • Illinois' longest rush vs. Northwestern (since 1945): 86 Rashard Mendenahll 11/18/2006
  • Illinois' longest pass vs. Northwestern (since 1945): 68 Eason to Lopez 11/21/1981
  • Last 100-yard receiving game vs. Northwestern: 164 Malik Turner 11/26/2016
  • Last 100-yard rushing game vs. Northwestern: 106 Daniel Dufrene 11/10/2007
  • Last 300-yard passing game vs. Northwestern: 337 Wes Lunt 11/26/2016

LAND OF LINCOLN TROPHY

  • Illinois and Northwestern will play for the "Land of Lincoln" trophy on Saturday, the 13th battle for the relatively new rivalry trophy. Illinois is 3-9 against Northwestern since the beginning of the Land of Lincoln trophy.
  • Illinois owns "Land of Lincoln" trophy wins in 2014, 2011 and 2010.
  • The Fighting Illini and Wildcats played for the "Sweet Sioux" Tomahawk from 1947-2008. Illinois led the traditional trophy series by a 32-28-2 mark, but Northwestern won the final meeting for the Tomahawk with its 27-10 win in 2008. The Tomahawk was retired following the 2008 season.
  • The combined trophy series (Sweet Sioux Tomahawk and Land of Lincoln Trophy) is 37-35-2 in favor of Northwestern.
  • The Land of Lincoln Trophy, a bronze replica of a stovepipe hat famously worn by Abraham Lincoln, was chosen by fans of both schools in 2009 in an online vote to replace the 62-year-old Tomahawk Trophy.

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