Illinois may be undefeated so far this season — their best start since 1951 — but the Fighting Illini have been wildly inconsistent in their four victories. When Northwestern heads into Champaign, their fate will rest on which form of the Illinois Fighting Illini shows up to play the Wildcats.
The season got off to somewhat of a rocky start for Illinois in the team’s opener, when the Illini defeated Sun Belt Conference squad Arkansas State 33-15. Arkansas State even held an 8-7 lead late in the first half, before the Illini reclaimed it for good.
Over the next two games, Illinois looked like a team that could possibly make a run at a Big Ten championship. In their second game of the season, the Illini routed South Dakota State 56-3, the biggest win for Illinois since 1944. Following their big win over South Dakota State, the Illini hosted the 22nd ranked Arizona State Sun Devils and came away with an impressive victory. Behind a well-rounded performance from sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase — 202 total yards and a passing touchdown — the Illini were able to upset the Sun Devils behind Scheelhaase’s game winning, fourth quarter touchdown pass to A.J. Jenkins.
Just when it looked like Illinois could be a team to reckon with this season, the Illini were barely able to top Western Michigan at home this past Saturday. Illinois earned a 23-20 victory over the Broncos, but Western Michigan held the lead at the half and rallied to tie the game in the fourth quarter. A Derek Dimke chip shot 21-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter gave the Illini their winning points, but clearly Illinois struggled to deal with the Broncos.
Though Western Michigan is typically a pretty solid football team, Illini supporters undoubtedly will compare their close result with fellow Big Ten squad Michigan’s more impressive 34-10 victory over the Broncos earlier this season (and that game was shortened by over a quarter of play).
The question for Northwestern is which of the two Illinois teams will show up this Saturday. Will it be the one that struggled at times against Arkansas State and Western Michigan, or will it be the one that crushed Arkansas State and upset Arizona State?
Northwestern supporters will have to wait until Saturday to find out which version of the Illini will face the ‘Cats. But at the same time, we don’t even know which version of Northwestern — the team that beat Boston College or the team that lost to Army — will show up either.