The south end zone
scoreboard at Memorial Field flashed "The State of Illinois' Undefeated
Big Ten Team" and the crowd crooned to the Chicago-inspired tunes of
"Sweet Home Chicago," Frank Sinatra's "My Kind of Town" and
Kanye West's "Homecoming."
Thus Shannon Ryan of the Chicago
Tribune described the end of last year’s meeting between the Wildcats and
the Fighting Illini in Champaign. The ‘Cats lost the Land of Lincoln Trophy for
the second straight year despite the return of quarterback Dan Persa and a
28-10 third quarter lead, allowing 4 late Illinois touchdowns to lose 38-35.
Nathan Scheelhaase brandishes the Land of Lincoln Trophy
Needless to say, fortunes have shifted. Illinois was ranked
24th and the ‘Cats were at the start of a 5 game losing streak that
began with an improbable upset at West Point against Army. Illinois’ head coach
Ron Zook was fired and replaced by Tim Beckman. The ‘Cats are on the cusp of a
winning (5-3) Big Ten campaign while the Illini have imploded under Tim Beckman
and are staring at the very real possibility of an 0-8 conference tour.
Illini fans, in better times.
Coaching changes are rarely smooth and the regime change to
Beckman is no exception. A talented Ron Zook team is playing like it is lost in
transition. Older Northwestern fans will enjoy something of a retro look on
Saturday: Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will look like a throwback to
Northwestern’s Lenny Williams, but without a Lee Gissandaner .
Opening Line: Northwestern by 18.5
Who should win: Northwestern. The ‘Cats are looking to
settle some scores and will not be distracted for their rivalry game. While
Scheelhaase will inevitably move the ball and get some points on the board, the
Illini’s predilection for turnovers will be their undoing. The only real
question is whether the Wildcats will be able to cover a spread that had moved
to 19.5 at press time.
It would be pragmatic of Coach Fitzgerald to make as little
use as possible of Venric Mark and Kain Colter to help healing ahead of the
bowl game. This may make for a closer game than the Wildcat faithful will be
NU Offense vs. Illinois Defense:
29.8 points per game (5th) vs. 30.5 points per game allowed
394.4 yards per game (6th) vs. 381.9 yards per game allowed
222.1 rushing yards per game (3rd) vs. 180.8 rushing yards
per game allowed (11th)
172.3 passing yards per game (111th) vs. 219.4 passing yards
per game allowed (6th)
122.5 passing efficiency (9th) vs. 147.9 pass efficiency
1.36 sacks allowed per game (2nd) vs. 1.81 sacks per game
Northwestern Turnover Margin: +1.00 per game (2nd)
After last week’s bruising battle with the Spartan defense,
the Wildcats will find the Illini defense downright porous. Look for the ‘Cats
to pound-pound-pound with great effect as the dominance of the offensive line
grows over the course of the game. The running game should continue to be
featured should Trevor Siemian take over at quarterback.
Illinois Offense vs. NU Defense:
16.9 points per game (12th) vs. 23.5 points per game allowed
301.6 yards per game (12th) vs. 398.4 yards per game allowed
128.0 rushing yards per game (10th) vs. 122.5 rushing yards
per game allowed (4th)
173.6 passing yards per game (10th) vs. 275.9 passing yards
per game allowed (12th)
114.8 passing efficiency (10th) vs. 124.6 pass efficiency
3.36 sacks allowed per game (12th) vs. 2.09 sacks per game
Illinois Turnover Margin: -0.91 per game (12th)
The Illini will likely struggle with the run against the
Northwestern defense and can be expected to try throwing on the Wildcat’s young
secondary and run Scheelhaase on rollouts and scrambles. Look for limited
success from Donovonn Young and Dami Ayoola as they try to run into a stacked
box. The top Illini receiver, Ryan Lankford is averaging a mere 45 yards per
game but did find the end zone last week against Purdue.
Young slashes his way through Purdue last week.
Lankford finds the end zone earlier this season.
What Could Happen:
This is a rivalry game and the Northwestern – Illinois
series is filled with games where the underdog came out on top. Of the more
jarring episodes was the 13-10 Illini win in 1998. If the ‘Cats slip into
offensive dysfunction showing serial three and out series, a demoralized Illini
squad could start believing in themselves and pull off an upset.
- Friday, November 23 marks the 100th
anniversary of the Northwestern vs. Illinois contest of 1912 where Go U Northwestern was unveiled as Go! Northwestern Go!
- At press time, I was unable to confirm whispers
that NUMB would salute our opponent by playing Home for the Holidays.
- Saturday is Senior Day for the following 24
Wildcats who will appear in their final home game: DL Brian Arnfelt, S Hunter
Bates, SB Anthony Battle, S Jared Carpenter, DL Bo Cisek, DL Davon Custis, OL
Neal Deiters, CB Demetrius Dugar, CB Quinn Evans, WR Demetrius Fields, PK Steve
Flaherty, LB Roderick Goodlow, RB Tyris Jones, WR Drew Moulton, OL Brian
Mulroe, LB David Nwabuisi, OL Taylor Paxton, OL Chuck Porcelli, SB Tim Riley,
SB Brian Smith, LB Will Studlien, OL Pat Ward, SB Evan Watkins and DL Quentin
Northwestern 35 Illinois 17
Look for the ‘Cats to put this one away early and for the
Illini to try to mount a comeback. Unlike last year, they will come up short,
in fact way short but not short enough to cover the spread.
I was saddened to read of the decision of Jonathan Hodges to
retire from his commentary on the HailToPurple.com site. I have come to depend
on Jonathan’s skillful and objective analysis of upcoming games and their
outcomes for many years. His balanced and even-handed views will be missed. Let
me join the chorus of those offering thanks and let me say that gamedays will
just not be quite the same without him. Best of luck to you, Jonathan!
Like a backup quarterback stepping into a game stone cold,
I’ve attempted to fill in this week to help HailToPurple.com. Here’s hoping that the effort, while far shy
of Jonathan’s standards was nonetheless of some help and amusement.