Game Preview


Wrigley Field
Saturday, November 11, 11:00 am CST
TV: ESPNU (Gameday Pregame on ESPN)
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Illinois
by Jonathan Hodges

Well, there's quite a lot to say about this game between the (Coaches' Poll No. 25) Northwestern Wildcats (7-3, 3-3) and the Illinois Fighting Illini (5-5, 3-4), so let's get right to it.

First off, the game will, of course, be played at historic Wrigley Field in Chicago, in a game that was moved from Ryan Field in NU AD Jim Phillips' first big-splash move at Northwestern.  And, as documented earlier in the week, the game is already a success even before reaching kickoff.  The atmosphere around the game will be great as it looks very much like an in-season bowl game, particularly from the fan's perspective.  The game and surrounding event should really be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and that will make this a day to remember no matter what happens on the field.

But, there is an important game on the field, as both teams jockey for valuable bowl positioning (with Illinois seeking, for the third consecutive week, to become bowl eligible).  The winner of this game gets the inside track on a bid to the Texas Bowl (in Houston on Dec. 29) while also keeping open a chance at the Insight Bowl.  The loser, meanwhile, is more likely to head to Dallas on New Year's Day for the TicketCity Bowl (formerly known as the Dallas Football Classic).  With both teams hitting the road for their final game of the year (NU at Wisconsin and Illinois at Fresno State), this game is really a must-have for reaching a desirable bowl destination.

There's more: don't forget that this is the 104th meeting between these rivals as they battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy after the 'Cats won it in its debut last season.  This is also a very close series, with Illinois holding a 52-46-5 advantage, but the 'Cats have been hot as of late, going 10-5 since 1995 and winning the last 2 in a row.  It is also interesting to note that the team with the better record going into the game (this season: Northwestern) has won 11 consecutive games and 16 of the last 17.  But, this is an always well-contested in-state rivalry in which either side can prevail.

Also, to add to all of that, ESPN's College GameDay will be originating from Wrigley Field (actually, across Clark Street from the Wrigley marquee, which is painted purple, and surrounding Northwestern signage), marking the second occasion that the show has traveled to a Northwestern game in Illinois (they also came to NU for the 1995 game against Iowa in Evanston).  This will undoubtedly bring plenty of attention as college football fans across the nation will get to see what is essentially a huge NU advertisement as a backdrop for the popular pregame show.

After all that, there is indeed actual football to be played.  Northwestern is ranked in the Coaches' Poll for the second time this season and is on the cusp in the other polls (AP, Harris) after a huge come-from-behind win over then-BCS No. 13 ranked Iowa.  Of course, that was a bittersweet win as NU QB Dan Persa ruptured his Achilles' tendon on the go-ahead touchdown pass, which will force him to miss the rest of the season (including the bowl game) as he heals following surgery performed Saturday evening.  Redshirt freshman QB Evan Watkins, a local high school standout, will make his first start; thus far he has thrown just 7 collegiate passes (with 3 completions for 44 yards).  The rest of the team will be looking to elevate their performances to help make up for losing Persa, who was undoubtedly the team MVP so far this season.

Illinois is reeling and looking to right the ship after losing two wild games in which they and their opponents combined for a total of 204 points.  And that came after a solid 5-3 start to the season during which their only losses came to three teams who remain in the top 15 nationally (Missouri, Ohio State, and Michigan State).  It's clear that the Illini defense is having late-season issues, but they will become a really difficult foe when they get the D turned around a little because their offensive production over the same span has been impressive.  They are a run-first team but are also very dangerous through the air, their own redshirt freshman starting QB, Nathan Scheelhaase, has thrown for 15 TDs on the year to just 7 INTs, and as long as they rely on their potent ground game and he limits mistakes, they can compete with anyone.

All of this adds up to a very intriguing contest that will have significant implications for both sides and should be a ton of fun for all those in attendance.  Now, on to the specifics.

Opening Line

Illinois by 6.5.

Who Should Win

Despite their defensive troubles in the previous two games, the Illini still have a talented defensive unit that performed well this season until experiencing a significant downturn.  Expect that they will right the ship at some point, and they will be facing a redshirt freshman quarterback making his first collegiate start: something that tilts the game very much in favor of Illinois, especially since the outgoing QB has accounted for over 75% of Northwestern's total offense (yards) and offensive touchdowns in the 2010 season.  On offense, Illinois is more than proficient despite having a redshirt freshman of their own at the helm, as they average a solid 31.4 points per game, boosted by a rushing attack that ranks 20th nationally.

Upset Factor

Coach Fitz talks with good "coachspeak" but knows who Northwestern's rivals are and works hard to beat them, which is one reason why he currently owns a 3-1 record against Illinois (despite the fact that the Illini were favored in all of those games).  And, as demonstrated in both 2008 and 2009, NU knows how to find a way to win games even with a backup quarterback at the helm, so don't discount the 'Cats just because Persa is out.  The defense played one of their best games of the year against Iowa and Fitz will be looking to them to make the difference in this game: something that they are capable of doing if they execute for a full 60 minutes. 

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense vs. Illinois Defense

This will be quite interesting for two reasons: 1. nobody quite knows what Northwestern OC Mick McCall will do with Evan Watkins at the helm, and 2. nobody knows which Illinois defense will show up - the one that allowed 67 points to Michigan or the one that held Ohio State to 24, hanging with them almost the whole way.  First up, the Watkins experiment.

First off, it's clear that Watkins doesn't have the escapability that Persa does, and it's also likely that he won't be leading the team in rushing.  But, that doesn't mean he's a statue and I suspect that we'll see some designed running plays, specifically some zone read option plays.  Installing this type of play will help keep the Illini defense honest and should help open some things up in the passing game.

Also, Watkins looks like a prototypical quarterback, except even bigger: he's 6'6" and weighs in at just under 250 lbs.  He towers over Persa and that allows him to do some things that Persa can't always do - like throw over the battling linemen in front of him (especially notable since Persa's injury came on a play during which he had to jump to throw over the line, with that jump directly contributing to his injury).  And, as many have noted, he has the arm strength to make a lot of different throws.  The second key will be using that arm and size to go downfield with the football early in order to keep the Illinois defense on its heels as much as possible.  If Watkins can connect deep early, it will be a shot in the arm for the NU offense.

Getting Jeremy Ebert involved with the offense as much as possible would also be beneficial: he leads the team and the Big Ten in receiving yards with 849 on the season, and he has 8 TD catches to boot.  He also has 2 carries and 1 pass (which was completed) on the year, and getting him involved in all three of those areas would help as he is a playmaker (and was a high school QB).  And, almost without mentioning, getting the ground game churning out yards would be a great help: Mike Trumpy has a decent 3.9 yards per carry average and is now the active NU rushing leader on the season.

The Northwestern offensive line must have one of their best games of the season against a strong Illinois defensive front in order for the 'Cats to have a chance.  Right now, NU ranks 117th nationally (which is 3rd to last) in sacks allowed, and although they had a solid performance pass blocking against a stout Iowa DL, they didn't exactly give Persa all day to throw.  Watkins won't be able to duck and dive out of the way of pass rushers like Persa, so the OL must put together a stellar cross-unit performance to try and keep his jersey clean.

It's not like Illinois will make that easy, though, as they still rank 38th nationally in total defense even after getting torched for two straight weeks.  Corey Liuget is a beast on the line, having accumulated 8.5 TFLs, including 3.5 sacks, so far on the year along with 9 QB hurries.  Clay Nurse is also a big name who plays DE and ranks second on the team in sacks (3.0) and QB hurries (7).  The 'Cats would be wise to make sure that those two guys are blocked sufficiently on every play.

LB Martez Wilson, who returned this year after missing the vast majority of last year with a neck injury, is the workhorse of the defense, leading the team (by leaps and bounds) with 94 tackles.  If not for poor overall defensive play, he would easily be up for Big Ten postseason awards.  And in the secondary, Illinois has played reasonably well, ranking 40th in pass efficiency defense, with the help of a duo of junior safeties: Trulon Henry leads the team with 3 INTs and Tavon Wilson leads the Illini with 7 passes defended (1 INT & 6 PBUs).

While not a flashy defense, Illinois generally gets the job done and has undoubtedly been putting in twice the effort after consecutive bad games.  They do average 2.1 takeaways per game so NU would benefit greatly from avoiding turnovers, something they've done a good job of this season, ranking 13th nationally (losing just 1.2 per game, on average).  While it would be great to get an explosion play from the offense, the best thing that Northwestern can do is avoid a momentum-shifting turnover.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense vs. Illinois Offense

With Persa going down it is also clear that more weight will be put on the collective shoulders of the NU defense.  They did an admirable job against Iowa, holding the Hawkeyes to 17 points (7 of which came on a long 70 yard TD pass on broken coverage), but will have to put together 60 minutes of intensely focused play in order to keep the 'Cats in this one.  Generating takeaways would also go a long way in this one, just as Brian Peters' interception helped turn the tide in favor of Northwestern against Iowa (with NU getting its first points off of a turnover since week 4 of the season).

The Northwestern defense will have their work cut out for them, though, as the Illini rank 20th nationally in rushing offense at 207.1 yards per game on the ground and average 4.6 yards per carry.  Their aforementioned QB, Scheelhaase, is a threat both running and passing, having gained 587 yards on the ground and accounting for 18 TDs on the year.  But the biggest threat is likely RB Mikel Leshoure, who averages an impressive 5.2 yards per carry and has already eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark on the ground for the year.  Add to that RB Jason Ford, who has odne well for himself in a backup role gaining 4.4 yards per carry with 4 TDs, and you have a very dangerous offensive backfield.

And where Illinois really begins to hurt its opponents is when it can utilize play fakes in order to go downfield with the football.  Scheelhaase has proven he can do that regularly as he averages close to 150 yards per game through the air and has 15 passing TDs to just 7 INTs in this, his first collegiate season on the playing field.  Receivers AJ Jenkins and Jarred Fayson are extremely dangerous; they have a combined 73 receptions on the season, with 6 of those going for touchdowns.  And if covering that duo wasn't enough, the 'Cats' defense must account for Leshoure coming out of the backfield (especially on the wheel route which went for 2 TDs at Michigan) and also QB-to-WR convert Eddie McGee who can run (he has 11 carries on the year), throw (12 pass attempts), and catch (8 receptions).

Last week, the Wildcat defense showed it can play with just about anybody after shutting down Iowa for most of the contest.  NU will need another heroic effort from senior LB Nate Williams and S Brian Peters in order to contain the Illini running attack while also dropping into coverage when necessary.  The 'Cats could also benefit from some inspired DL play; when they do so good things definitely happen (see: Jack DiNardo TFLs and Vince Browne sacks against Iowa).  It's also vitally important for the Wildcats to play sound and disciplined on defense in order to contain Illinois when they run deception plays (which is essentially the basis of their offense) and also avoid those costly penalties.

While Illinois will be tough to defend (they have scored 99 points over the past 2 games combined), the 'Cats can definitely keep the game in reach by preventing the big explosion play (by staying disciplined) and getting off the field on third downs (Illinois averages a conversion rate of just 38.4% while the NU D allows a scant 32.6% rate - ranking them 11th nationally).  And if NU can generate a few turnovers, they could really help propel the 'Cats to a memorable victory.

What to Look for: Special Teams

Once again, NU seems to be at a disadvantage when comparing field goal kickers: NU's Stefan Demos, after nailing 4 in a row against MSU and Indiana, has missed 2 straight, while Illinois' Derek Dimke has hit 18-of-21 on the year and is perfect inside of 39 yards this season.  But, despite facing some solid kickers, NU's opponents are just 8-of-13 on the year - the 'Cats have found a way to somehow bring out the worst in their opponents' kickers.  On the other side, Illinois' opponents have hit 17-of-21 FG attempts on the year with at least one made FG in every game.  Kicking very well could make the difference in the game and with the way that both teams have played, one doesn't know what to expect despite Illinois having the advantage on paper.  Another interesting wrinkle is when kicking towards the right field bleachers at Wrigley, fans will have the opportunity to catch (and throw back) kicks that make it into the stands.

In the return game, Northwestern may actually have an advantage, particularly because of NU's solid coverage units combined with Illinois' poor return teams.  The 'Cats rank 4th nationally in punt return defense and 13th nationally in kick return defense; meanwhile, Illinois ranks 112th in punt returns and 78th in kickoff returns.  As long as the NU coverage teams keep up the intensity (see: Jeravin Matthews' performance against Iowa) they should be able to pin Illinois deep, which will do nothing but help the Wildcat defense.

On the flipside, Illinois is respectable on coverage (35th on punt returns and 56th on kick returns) and also feature the nation's 10th ranked punter in terms of yards per punt (Anthony Santella, who averages 45.4 yards per punt).  Consequently, the Illini net punting ranks 13th nationally.  The Wildcat return teams, nothing to write home about ranking 70th on punt returns and 82nd on kick returns, will have to get speedster Venric Mark in gear in order to generate some momentum for the offense, who would benefit from any help that they can get.

The Wildcats could surely benefit from some big plays on special teams which typically turn out to be momentum shifters, and there are some things in place that hint it is possible.  And if the 'Cats do seize momentum in this way, look out, because NU has a way of stealing momentum and running away with the game against the Illini.

Miscellaneous Notes

First Half Teams

Both teams have outscored their collective opponents this season in each of the first three quarters.  NU: 203-140, Illinois: 222-143.  BUT, both teams have been outscored by their opponents in the fourth quarter and overtime, which goes a long way in explaining their 8 collective losses: NU: 52-74, Illinois: 92-96.  Whichever team can "win" the fourth quarter will likely go on to win the contest.

Third Down Conversions

As partially covered earlier, Northwestern has a clear advantage on third downs.  On offense, the 'Cats rank 12th nationally converting 50.7% of the time while the Illinois defense ranks 60th, yielding 39.3% of the time.  On defense, Northwestern ranks 11th, allowing a 32.6% rate, while the Illinois offense has converted just 38.4% of their chances (75th), making the Illini rather dependent on the big play to move them downfield.  Northwestern, meanwhile, leads the nation in 10+ play drives (26.7% of drives); for comparison, Illinois ranks 63rd (13.2% of drives are 10+ plays).  And if the 'Cats get moving, they could steal even more momentum thanks to both teams sharing the same sideline, making it difficult to substitute and send in signals when play is on the opposite end of the field.

Wrigley Quirks

Continuing that thought, the field configuration at Wrigley will present some interesting situations on Saturday.  The most obvious one is the right field wall which is about a foot from the back of the end zone.  Yes, it is heavily padded (and has been heavily vetted and approved by both universities), but it will definitely have some sort of effect on the game, at the very least by altering the red zone game plan in order to avoid sending receivers towards the wall.  As mentioned earlier, that end zone does not have netting behind the field goal, which will allow fans in the stands or on Sheffield outside the stadium to catch game balls (that feature the Wrigleyville Classic logo) and either keep them or, in Wrigley tradition, throw them back.

As also mentioned, both teams sharing the same sideline (due to a lack of space on the other side of the field) will present some interesting challenges when play is on the opposite end of the field (Northwestern will be on the west side, closest to the 3rd base dugout while Illinois will be on the east side) in terms of substitutions and play signal calling.

It has also been reported that the field will be lit using the Wrigley lights along the first baseline as well as portable light trucks on the north side of the stadium (since there are no permanent lights in the outfield).  Also, Wrigley Field does not have a Jumbotron TV (and it appears as though there wasn't a portable TV brought in), making any challenges a crapshoot (fortunately in college most replays originate from the booth, although fans will likely be in the dark).

It's likely that these quirks will somehow impact the game, which makes it all that much more interesting, and we'll likely have to wait until Saturday to see what happens.


Both teams sport positive turnover margins on the season (NU ranks 26th nationally at +0.60 per game, Illinois ranks 34th at +0.40).  And both teams have been successful when winning the turnover battle (NU is 4-1 on the year, while Illinois is 3-2), although neither team has let it solely define their fate (NU is 3-2 when tying or losing the turnover battle, while Illinois is 2-3 in such games).  The 'Cats must beware, though, because the Illini ranks 24th nationally with 21 takeaways this year; NU has 18 (ranking them 50th), although the 'Cats have generated at least one takeaway in every game so far this season.

Outrushing Opponents

Illinois, with their run-first offense, has outrushed all but one opponent this season (that game resulted in a loss).  Northwestern, meanwhile, has managed to equal or better its opponent on the ground in 7 games this year (somewhat surprising, but a testament to the NU run defense), going 6-1 in those contests.  If the Wildcats can outgain Illinois on the ground in this one, it would definitely help NU's cause.  To do that, Northwestern must get spectacular line play on both sides of the ball on play after play against an opponent that features some tough guys in the trenches.

Injury Report


LB Roderick Goodlow (knee, out for season), QB Dan Persa (Achilles tendon, out for season), OL Doug Bartels (shoulder, questionable), RB Scott Concannon (hip, doubtful), RB Jacob Schmidt (ankle, questionable), OL Evan Luxenburg (knee, out).

Everyone knows about the Persa injury by now.  Otherwise, the 'Cats are still rather healthy and may get some of the walking wounded back before too long, which would help in terms of depth.  It is indeed unfortunate that Persa went down because the 'Cats were doing fairly well at avoiding significant injuries to that point in 2010.


TE Russell Ellington (shoulder, out), S Supo Sanni (Achilles tendon, out for season), LB Evan Frierson (arrest, off the team).

The most significant development for the Illini over the past week has been backup LB Frierson's dismissal from the team after an arrest for aggravated battery.  Other than that, Illinois has made it to this point in the season relatively unscathed despite some bumps and bruises earlier in the season.


Northwestern 20, Illinois 19

Illinois is a solid football team, as demonstrated across multiple games earlier this season, but in typical Zook-coached fashion, they seem to be falling apart.  They'll likely put up quite a fight in this one, but, like they proved last week against Iowa, Northwestern comes on at the end of the season and will be prepared to compete despite losing their best and most productive offensive player, Dan Persa.

It also helps that Northwestern, sitting at 7 wins, has nothing to lose in this game and will likely play as such, especially with the seemingly confident Evan Watkins now at the helm.  Illinois, meanwhile, knows it has to win at least one more game to even reach bowl eligibility, and this will likely be their best opportunity as their last game of the year is a tough trip out west to face Fresno State.

Finally, the momentum and support both definitely seem to be in NU's favor this week; realizing that it doesn't usually mean much, but everything seems to be favoring the 'Cats and Fitz's record in November (10-5) and against Illinois (3-1) are undeniable.  This will be quite a memorable game for everyone in attendance and hopefully NU can make it an unforgettable one for Northwestern fans with a win.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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