Post-Game Analysis: Illinois State
by Jonathan Hodges

The Wildcats took care of business against the FCS member Illinois State Redbirds on Saturday, cruising to a 37-3 victory thanks to another efficient performance from QB Dan Persa and a solid effort from the entire defense.  Northwestern held a 30-3 lead at halftime and used much of the second half as a chance to get valuable playing time for many younger members of the Wildcats.

Northwestern's offense started off the game in a groove, scoring on five of their first six drives that included four touchdowns.  Persa tossed two TDs to Drake Dunsmore while running for another, and Arby Fields, who had a respectable game on the ground, also hit paydirt.  All in all, the NU offense racked up 318 yards of total offense in the first half, with Persa accounting for 253 of those thanks to going 19-of-22 passing during that time.

And the defense followed suit, allowing just a field goal and racking up two interceptions in the first half, both by LB Quentin Davie.  Both of those interceptions set up touchdown-scoring drives for the Wildcats, with the latter coming just 28 seconds before halftime, allowing NU to obtain a 30-3 halftime lead that put NU in a position to essentially run out the clock in the second half.

And run out the clock is what the 'Cats did in the second half.  After a quick three-and-out, Persa was given a rest for the remainder of game as redshirt freshman QB Evan Watkins was given the reins in his first collegiate action.  He wasn't asked to do much, throwing the ball just four times through almost two full quarters of work, and he completed two of those passes for 31 yards, including a nifty 21 yard toss to true freshman Venric Mark.

The story of the second half on offense was NU running the ball to bleed the clock.  The 'Cats only amassed 84 yards of offense, but were able to find the end zone one more time with a Mike Trumpy one yard run to cap off the scoring on a drive that was set up by a Ben Johnson fumble return on what looked like an incomplete pass but was ruled to be a lateral.

The second half was also a perfect opportunity for Northwestern to empty the bench, and they definitely took advantage, with a whopping 69 players getting some playing time during the game.  For Wildcat fans, it was definitely a comfort to spend much of the second half with a significant lead and reserves on the field getting some action.

The NU offense looked very solid during an efficient first half, while the defense made plays when they needed to in order to keep ISU out of the end zone, which is a pretty good accomplishment on a day when two more FBS teams have already fallen to FCS opponents (the Big Ten's own Minnesota to South Dakota and ranked Virginia Tech to James Madison).

The result should help 'Cats fans rest a little easier with NU heading down to Houston next Saturday night to face a beatable but still dangerous Rice team.  Persa is a pleasure to watch run the offense and the defense definitely improved some things over the last week.  Hopefully we will see the 'Cats continue to build momentum as their opponents become tougher.

Player of the Game

Northwestern QB Dan Persa (19-of-23 passing for 240 yards and 2 TDs, 6 carries for 14 yards and 1 TD rushing)  Despite playing just one half, Persa gets the nod here thanks to another extremely efficient performance as he led the 'Cats to 30 first half points with what looked like relative ease.  He was "this close" to another passing TD on a pass in the end zone that just couldn't be hauled in by Sidney Stewart.  The NU offense is definitely in good hands with him at the helm.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

LB Quentin Davie (3 tackles, 2 INTs, 45 interception return yards)  Davie showed his athleticism as he racked up two leaping interceptions at the end of the second quarter, with both of those setting up NU TD-scoring drives.  He is a legitimate defensive threat on all areas of the field: wreaking havoc in the backfield, taking care of the ballcarrier in the middle of the field, and covering the passing game.

DE Vince Browne (5 tackles, 2 sacks for -16 yards, 2 QB hurries)  Browne made a bunch of noise in the backfield on Saturday, which helped significantly disrupt the ISU attack and contributed to an overall solid effort from the NU D.  He is definitely NU's top pass rusher on the DL and should continue to annoy passers for the rest of the season.

P Brandon Williams (4 punts, 41.8 yards per punt, 1 inside 20)  Once again, Williams put up some solid punting numbers and allowed the coverage team to take care of business with booming kicks.  He deserves credit because he put the NU defense in good starting positions when the 'Cats' offense wasn't able to reach a first down.

SB Drake Dunsmore (5 catches for 30 yards, 2 TDs)  Dunsmore is clearly Persa's favorite red zone target, having caught three red zone TD passes from the QB so far this season.  He also contributes in the running game by throwing some key blocks.  Look for these trends to continue as the season progresses.

What to Work on

Running Game:  Yes, NU ran the ball early and often, with Wildcat running backs amassing 151 yards on the ground.  But those numbers still aren't spectacular, as the RBs averaged just 3.7 yards per carry.  Arby Fields looked better, with 96 rushing yards and a TD while gaining an average of 4.4 yards per carry.  But with a talented and experienced offensive line clearing the way along with a very good looking passing game, the running game should be better.  At least there was improvement, although there is room for more.

Placekicking:  A week after having a field goal blocked and experiencing a bad hold that prevented an extra point attempt, Stefan Demos missed a 45-yard field goal and an extra point.  While leaving four points on the field this week didn't hurt, NU will need to execute at a higher level in the inevitable close games that 'Cats fans know will come.

Random Observations

Attendance:  Listed at 25,471, attendance was respectable on a day that included heavy rain up through the first few minutes of the football game.  Thankfully the precipitation subsided and gave way to a great day for football, and it also thankfully didn't hamper attendance too much.  Yes, Band Day and the "Wrigley boost" helped, but NU will take it.  The attendance was also the best at Ryan Field for a non-conference game since nearby Northern Illinois visited in 2005.  Hopefully this is a sign of even better things to come this season.

Atmosphere:  First, the sound system was a huge improvement, with two sets high-powered speakers now positioned on top of the Randy Walker Terrace just beyond the north end zone.  NUMB didn't seem to be miked in the stands yet, but that is reportedly on the table.  The new inflatable tunnel and pyrotechnics during NU's pregame entry were also a positive addition.  Finally, the new home uniforms do look good, although the jerseys appeared to be darker than they actually are as they were quite wet at the start of the game.

Red Zone Offense:  The Wildcats were a perfect five-of-five on red zone chances, with all five turning into touchdowns.  Meanwhile on the other side of the ball, Illinois State converted just one-of-three red zone chances, and that was a field goal.  This difference in favor of NU definitely helped the 'Cats run away with the game.

QB Pressure:  The 'Cats' pass rush, led by Vince Browne, racked up three sacks and eight QB hurries on the day and significantly disrupted ISU's passing offense.  On the other side of the ball, meanwhile, ISU had just one sack (for -1 yards) and one QB hurry, which allowed Persa to once again put on a show.

Final Thought

The Wildcats took care of business and a very efficient first half allowed the reserves to get some valuable playing time through the second half.  Northwestern has outscored its last four FCS opponents by a cumulative score of 145-24 after the disappointing loss to New Hampshire in 2006.  The game definitely increased the confidence and comfort level of the 'Cats heading into the two win-able but challenging remaining non-conference games at Rice and versus Central Michigan.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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