Game Preview


Illinois State at NU
Ryan Field
Saturday, September 11, 11:00 am CDT
TV: Big Ten Network
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Illinois State
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (1-0, 0-0) open their 2010 home football schedule with a date against the Football Championship Subdivision member Illinois State Redbirds (1-0).  The 'Cats are fresh off a hard-fought but error-filled victory on the road at SEC member Vanderbilt.  Meanwhile, ISU barely held on in their 2010 lidlifter at home in Normal, coming back late against Central Missouri to win 55-54.

This game presents a perfect opportunity for Northwestern to work on its execution before facing more formidable non-conference opponents in the coming weeks.  Against the Commodores, NU made multiple errors in all phases of the game.  On special teams, placekicking errors led to a blocked field goal and a non-attempted extra point.  On defense, NU allowed multiple big plays in both the running and passing games.  And on offense, the 'Cats' running backs averaged a paltry 2.0 yards per carry.

While no game is a gimme, this one figures to follow the trend of FCS opponents NU has faced since 2007 (more on that later).  NU has a great opportunity to simplify things on both sides of the ball and focus in on execution.  Expect to see plenty from the stable of NU running backs on offense, and on the other side of the ball don't be surprised to see plenty from the backups and reserves as the 'Cats try to build valuable experience for the entire squad.

For Northwestern to win, they don't have to do anything too fancy, just all 11 guys do their jobs well and follow the game plan.  NU must push the effort through all 60 minutes, though, as a couple of FBS teams learned this past weekend.  With a strong performance from start to finish, the 'Cats can appease some of the biggest detractors who have been hitting NU from all sides after last Saturday night's win.

NU can also build some momentum at home before hitting the road again to play Rice in steamy Houston, which looks to be more of a challenge after Rice refused to be steamrolled by top 10 Texas in week one.  Every victory counts and NU can get one notch closer to bowl eligibility while building up those backups and reserves along the way.

Opening Line

Off the board.  Sagarin ratings have Northwestern predicted to win by 22.4 points.

Who Should Win

Last week, the Division II Central Missouri Mules had Illinois State down 54-47 at home before the Redbirds mounted a touchdown-scoring drive, hitting paydirt with just over two minutes remaining and using Michigan State transfer Ashton Leggett to score the two point conversion in order to take a 55-54 lead that would hold up as the final.  In terms of personnel, while the gap between FBS and FCS in Division I isn't all that great (85 players on scholarship each, with the former giving all full scholarships and the latter dividing up 63 scholarships), there is a big drop to Division II, which only has 36 to divide amongst the team.  Needless to say, Illinois State doesn't look very good this year after that performance (especially on defense), and expect to see Northwestern continue the trend from the three most recent seasons where they beat their FCS foes handily (27-0 over Northeastern in '07, 33-7 over Southern Illinois in '08, and 47-14 over Towson in '09).

Upset Factor

In case anyone has a short memory, the Wildcats did lose to FCS New Hampshire in 2006, and the fact is that Coach Fitz and any fifth year seniors on NU do, in fact, remember that game.  And to job memories nationally, the first weekend in the 2010 season featured two FCS over FBS wins: Jacksonville State over Ole Miss and North Dakota State over Kansas.  NU made its share of mistakes last week, and any good NU fan also knows the 'Cats are always able to play down to their competition.

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense against Illinois State Defense

Look for plenty of running, both early and often.  Like NU's game plan last year against FCS member Towson, expect to see plenty of runs from running backs Arby Fields, Jacob Schmidt, Stephan Simmons, and Scott Concannon.  QB Dan Persa was almost the sole source of offense last week and it's clear that Fitz will try to spread the wealth a little on offense this week.

If ISU stacks the box all game and the Northwestern run game isn't going anywhere, which is entirely possible, look for Persa to light up the Redbirds passing the football.  Last week against Central Missouri, ISU gave up a whopping 605 yards of total offense with 547 of them coming through the air.  Six of the Mules' seven touchdowns came through the air, with three of them on passes of 30 yards or longer.

Persa showed himself to be an excellent passer last week, going 19-for-21 with only one (relatively) poorly thrown ball, which was deflected at the line of scrimmage.  If NU has to resort to passing they should be able to take care of business in short order.

One other thing going in NU's favor in this matchup is both size and depth.  While the front line of ISU isn't too shabby, the 'Cats should be able to wear down the Redbirds with depth that can't be matched by most FCS squads.  This should be especially evident on the OL where one should expect some talented underclassmen Wildcats to see the field for the first time.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense against Illinois State Offense

Some NU defenders, like Jack DiNardo and Brian Peters, had a pretty solid game last week.  But overall, some blown assignments allowed Vanderbilt to rack up 432 yards of offense on the 'Cats, both on the ground and through the air.  Expect NU to simplify some things and work on executing DC Mike Hankwitz's game plan in order to stop the ISU attack.

Of course, Illinois State did pretty well for themselves one week ago, amassing 55 points on the back of 509 yards of offense, which equates to a rather efficient attack (albeit, two were non-offensive TDs: one kick return to open the game and the other an interception return).  Their starting QB, Matt Brown, was quite good, going 24-for-31 with 303 passing yards and 3 TDs with no interceptions.

Northwestern did quite well at rushing the QB last week, racking up one sack in addition to five QB hurries.  Expect plenty of pass rushing from the front four and some results on the stat sheet this week.  While NU won't throw in any exotic blitzes, essentially every guy on the DL has shown the ability to reach the opposing QB.

The secondary will likely be tested early and often, but as long as this unit executes the plan, they should be able to contain the passing attack.  This will be valuable experience for some relatively new starters as well as any of the backups that get into the game.

What to Look for: Special Teams

The punting game was excellent last week.  Kickoffs were solid, although the coverage team left some to be desired.  Plackicking had a couple of significant gaffes that left four valuable points on the field.  Kick returns were only so-so, and punt returning also had a significant error as Hunter Bates muffed a punt (but fortunately recovered).

Expect these units to again focus on performing their duties; there may not be any huge plays, but the key is eliminating costly mistakes.  Hopefully we won't see any more missed blocks on field goal attempts or any more bad holds on the same.

Miscellaneous Notes:

Illinois State vs. FBS (Div. I-A)

Since NCAA Division I split into I-A (now FBS) and I-AA (now FCS) in 1978, Illinois State has played a whopping 49 games against opponents from the higher subdivision.  They have won only 6 of those games, with the most recent win coming in 1991.  All six victories were against teams now in the MAC (Akron in '91, Western Michigan in '87, Northern Illinois in '80, and Eastern Michigan in '80, '79, and '78).  In 11 losses to current BCS conference members during that span, their average margin of defeat was 30.5.  But they haven't been completely dead, though, as they lost to Kansas State by just one point (23-24) back in 2006 (they went victory with for a two point conversion on a late touchdown, which failed).

Net Punting

What a difference a new season and a new punter make.  At the end of the 2009 season, NU ranked 115th nationally averaging 31.65 net yards per punt.  Through one game (5 punts) in 2010, NU ranks a respectable 18th nationally with a net punting average of 42.60 yards.  That significant swing of over 10 yards is a huge boon to the defense and will hopefully be sustained through the season.

Passing Efficiency

NU QB Dan Persa ranks 8th nationally in passing efficiency, and NU as a team ranks 5th nationally.  Expect such gaudy numbers to continue against a pass defense that has shown itself to be, at best, porous in 2010.

Injury Report:


LB Roderick Goodlow (knee, out for season), LB Tim Riley (shoulder, out), S David Arnold (foot, out), WR Tony Jones (shoulder, out), DT Niko Mafuli (out), LB Bryce McNaul (shoulder, out).

NU experienced just one significant injury in week one, which was the loss of backup defensive tackle Niko Mafuli, a large presence in the middle.  According to Fitz, he should be back before the end of the season, although the time frame has not yet been determined.  True freshman Will Hampton has moved into a DT backup slot in his stead.  The linebacker corps' depth was also tested with McNaul out for the game (as he will be this week) and Ben Johnson going down for a few plays, although Ben did quickly re-enter the game.  Johnson had NU's only sack against Vanderbilt and got the starting nod this week.

It was confirmed late last week that Roderick Goodlow will be done for the year, which takes off a bit of the depth at linebacker, although sophomore Stone Pinckney will step into one of the backup slots to fill that space.  All three backups got some playing time last week and will likely get much more against ISU this week.

Illinois State

No injury report except that all listed starters from week one remain on the depth chart for their game against Northwestern (one, the TE, swapped places with a backup).


Northwestern 41, Illinois State 13

Expect plenty of running from the 'Cats who should be able to move the ball well enough on the ground, but also a good amount of scoring through the air as Persa tries to keep his arm fresh.

On defense, NU will yield some yards and points, but should look better than last week as they get back to the basics and look to improve from the baseline set in week one.

It should be one step closer to bowl eligibility for the fourth consecutive year for the 'Cats as they focus on Illinois State this week but also prepare themselves for more difficult opponents in the future.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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