Illinois State at NU
Saturday, September 11, 11:00 am CDT
TV: Big Ten Network
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
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.
Off the board.
Sagarin ratings have Northwestern predicted to win by 22.4
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 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
Illinois State vs. FBS (Div. I-A)
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
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.
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
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.
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
Northwestern 41, Illinois State
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.
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.
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