Post-Game Analysis: Illinois
by Jonathan Hodges

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Well it was quite a memorable day as football made a return to Wrigley Field under unique circumstances, but the Northwestern Wildcats (7-4, 3-4) unfortunately just couldn't find a way to turn all of that energy into a win as the Illinois Fighting Illini (6-5, 4-4) ran all over the 'Cats on the way to a 48-27 win.

It was indeed a bowl-like atmosphere as ESPN College GameDay broadcast across the street from Wrigley featuring a crowd filled with NU fans and the purple marquee in the background.  That atmosphere continued throughout the neighborhood and right up until the mid-afternoon kickoff.  As mentioned in the game preview, a lot was on the line for both teams in terms of bowl positioning (and, for Illinois, eligibility) along with that all-important Land of Lincoln rivalry trophy that the 'Cats took home last year.

First Half Summary

Illinois came out and attacked, winning to coin toss and taking the football first, and going 66 yards in just 3 plays thanks to 2 explosive 30+ yard runs from Mikel Leshoure, a name that would be heard quite a lot during the game.  He would punch it in and with just over 1 minute off the clock, the Illini were already ahead in the game.  The 'Cats would fall further behind thanks to an Evan Watkins fumble that followed an incompletion (tipped pass) and a 6 yard run by Mike Trumpy.  The Illini used a mix of QB and RB runs to run it in on a short 30 yard drive and NU was falling way behind early.

On the following drive, NU aimed to make Watkins a bit more comfortable by sticking with the ground game, starting off with a Venric Mark end-around; but, as he did at Minnesota, he fumbled; but, this time, NU's Trumpy fortunately recovered for the 'Cats.  A couple of plays later, Northwestern burned the redshirt on one of their true freshman QBs, Kain Colter, who gained 4 yards for a first down on his first collegiate play from scrimmage.  But, later in the drive, the Northwestern miscues would continue as fellow freshman RB Adonis Smith fumbled, with Illinois recovering this time.

On the ensuing drive, Illinois went away from Leshoure at their detriment, as an Eddie McGee (a former QB turned WR who still attempts passes on gadget plays from time to time) got the toss back and was looking to throw, but his desperation pass attempt to avoid the sack was intercepted by NU S Brian Peters and returned 59 yards for a defensive touchdown in the infamous Wrigley east end zone.  That was a huge momentum shift for the 'Cats who were potentially looking at going down by 3 scores but found a way to cut the Illini lead to 7.

But, despite taking that momentum, the Wildcats would be burned by Leshoure once again as they allowed him to go 70 yards on the very next play from scrimmage, with Jason Ford punching it in two plays later to give Illinois a 21-7 lead with just under 5 minutes still remaining in the first quarter.  It was looking to be a barn burner, and NU needed some kind of life out of its offense.  Unfortunately for the Wildcats, that wouldn't come yet.

On the first set of downs on the next drive, the 'Cats had 3rd-and-4 when Watkins made his second big mistake of the game: an interception to Illinois LB Ian Thomas, who returned it to the NU 30 yard line and then got another 15 tacked on thanks to an NU personal foul.  The Illini were certainly in a position to take a 3 possession lead once again, but the NU defense would respond again.  A holding penalty put Illinois behind the chains and offsetting penalties negated a 3rd down converting catch, and NU finally held the Illini to a field goal try: a 28 yard attempt that was missed by the usually-reliable Derek Dimke.  Once again, the 'Cats held onto some life in the ballgame.

Northwestern would get the ball at the 20 after the missed field goal inside the red zone, and here came yet another momentum changing play: Trumpy got the ball on an inside zone run and found a hole then cut outside and it was off to the races as he took the ball all the way to the house for an 80 yard touchdown: the longest NU run from scrimmage since 1986 (a span that included numerous notable running backs, of course).  Suddenly, despite turning the ball over twice and being seemingly unable to stop the Illinois run game, the 'Cats found themselves still in the ball game.

On the next drive, Illinois got to start at their own 46 thanks to a solid return, a feature seen most of the night with a strong wind blowing in (meaning all kickoffs would be going into the wind), and picked up a couple of first downs on the ground before the drive stalled just inside the NU 30.  The NU D held once again, but this time Dimke would nail the field goal to put Illinois up 24-14 with over 10 minutes remaining in the 2nd quarter.

The teams would trade punts, but when Illinois kicked to Venric Mark, the speedster finally showed off his wheels, taking the muffed ball 58 yards all the way to the 14 yard line in yet another huge play.  While the Wildcats couldn't capitalize with a touchdown, Stefan Demos would nail the FG to put the 'Cats back within one score.  The Northwestern D came up with a three-and-out stop to get NU the ball back once again, and this time NU would finally put together a methodical drive where they converted a third down with another Colter run and Watkins threw one of his best passes of the day, a 32 yarder to Tony Jones that gave the Wildcats first-and-goal.  Trumpy would punch it in and, suddenly, the Wildcats had tied the game with just under 3 minutes left in the half.  It was clear that if NU could continue what it was doing on both sides of the football in the second quarter, they could actually pull this off despite the horrid start to the game.

Illinois would get the ball one more time in the half, though, and despite starting at their own 9 yard line (finally giving the Northwestern student section in right field a chance to cheer wildly), the Illini would put together a 12 play drive that allowed them to kick a 39 yard field goal as the first half expired in order to take a lead into halftime.  But, the 'Cats would get the ball to start the second half and it was looking as though NU could actually keep up with the Illini even without Persa on the field.

Second Half Summary

The second half wouldn't be as kind to the 'Cats, though, because despite avoiding as many costly plays, NU didn't get those big explosion plays in their favor and eventually just couldn't keep up with the Illini who seemed to be on a mission on offense to flat out-execute.  NU started with a three-and-out, and Illinois took over and went 61 yards in 14 plays, bleeding almost 7 valuable minutes off the clock and scoring a touchdown in the process, putting them back up by 10, 34-24.

The teams traded punts, and, just before the fourth quarter, the NU offense seemed to be finding some momentum yet again.  The offense hit three consecutive first downs and found themselves on the cusp of field goal range, with 1st-and-10 at the Illinois 29 to start the fourth quarter.  But, once again, Illinois put the heat on Watkins and on third down he was sacked outside of field goal range, forcing NU to punt.  Illinois would seize the momentum and Leshoure would get yet another explosion run, this time 62 yards, putting Illinois in position to punch yet another one in to take a 41-24 lead.

Watkins would pick up three first downs through the air, with the first two plays of the drive being passes to WR Jeremy Ebert, who remains the lead ing Big Ten receiver in terms of yards.  But the drive would stall and Demos would hit his second FG of the game to get the 'Cats back within 2 scores.  Time was running out, though, with just over 7 minutes remaining in the contest.

The Illini would go on yet another methodical drive down the field, though, as the Northwestern defense continued to have problems getting off the field, with Illinois converting 3 third downs on their march for yet another TD on the ground as the Illini would take a 48-27 lead that would be the final score.  NU would run a couple of running plays to allow the clock to wind down and the Wrigley game was over with a lot of build up and a big dud on the field for the Wildcats.

Player of the Game

Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure (33 carries for 330 yards, 2 TDs; 1 reception for 11 yards)  He ran for an Illinois school record 330 yards and had 5 runs of 20+ yards on the day, along with 2 touchdowns.  He was clearly the most dominant player on the field and Northwestern flat out couldn't stop him.  His running allowed Illinois to basically hand him the ball all day long as the Illini only attempted 14 passes on the day (completing just 6 of them) but could control the game on the ground.

What Happened

(Note: the quotes come from my game preview.)

"the biggest threat is likely Mikel Leshoure..."  In case you didn't read the player of the game summary, Northwestern did not heed this warning, allowing Leshoure to run like crazy early and often.  The NU D looked much like they did in the second half at Penn State as they routinely missed tackles and got caught going against the flow.  It wasn't like Illinois came up with some different game plan, either, sticking to what has made their offense quite successful as of late.

" 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"
  NU allowed 6 plays of 20+ yards and let Illinois convert 58.8% of their third downs (as well as 1 fourth down).  Needless to say the Northwestern defense just didn't get the job done: when they weren't giving up huge runs, they were allowing the Illini to drive systematically down the field that kept the NU offense on the sideline while also falling further behind.

"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."
  Watkins was sacked 3 times (losing the ball on a fumble on one of those sacks) while the 'Cats averaged just 3.8 yards per carry on the ground after removing the 80 yard run by Trumpy.  So, without much of a passing game to speak of, NU couldn't keep moving the football.

"...neither team has let [the turnover margin] solely define their fate (NU is 3-2 when tying or losing the turnover battle, while Illinois is 2-3 in such games)."  Northwestern fell to 3-3 in such games as the 'Cats suffered 3 early turnovers (that Illinois turned into 7 points) that gave Illinois some valuable early momentum.  Illinois, while suffering 2 costly ones of their own (NU turned them into 14 points, with 7 coming directly on an INT return), made enough plays during the rest of the game to more than make up for it.

"Redshirt freshman QB Evan Watkins, a local high school standout, will make his first start"  Watkins did look like a freshman out there.  While he made some impressive throws (including the aforementioned 32 yard pass to Jones), he completed just 50% of his pass attempts, and found himself holding onto the football too long on multiple occasions.  NU didn't convert a third down with him in the game (fellow QB Kain Colter converted both of NU's third down conversions on the ground), and it was clear that he couldn't simply step in and replace Dan Persa as the leader of the offense.

"the 'Cats have found a way to somehow bring out the worst in their opponents' kickers"  Once again Demos found a way to outkick his opponent, by hitting all 3 XPs and 2 FGs while Illinois' Dimke missed a seemingly easy 28 yarder (he hadn't missed a FG inside of 39 yards this year coming into the game).  Unfortunately, the game just wasn't close enough for NU to take advantage of that mistake.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

RB Mike Trumpy (13 carries for 129 yards, 2 TDs; 2 receptions for 12 yards)  Trumpy was second on the field in all-purpose yards and he showed the valuable ability make an explosive play with his 80 yard sprint for a touchdown.  It's clear that he can be a positive factor for the Wildcats' offense, especially once Persa returns (or, if Watkins can come around in the passing game).

S Brian Peters (18 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 INTs, 1 INT return for TD)  Peters did just about all he could for the 'Cats, leading the team in tackles and also accounting for both of Northwestern's takeaways (including the unprecedented return for a touchdown in the infamous Wrigley east end zone).  For the second consecutive week he made a huge momentum-shifting play to get the 'Cats back into the football game.

What to Work on

Offense:  Yes, there's just one regular season game left (along with the bowl game), but it is still important for Northwestern to get the offense in gear under Evan Watkins.  It's obvious that NU can't rely on the "old tricks" (i.e. Persa scrambling the majority of the time) to move the ball under Watkins.  It would also help matters to take some pressure off of Watkins' shoulders by shifting more responsibility to other parts of the offense, including the running game.  While it will be difficult to out-execute most opponents up front to try and run the football, the 'Cats can do some different things to still gain yards on the ground.  It was also interesting to see Colter out on the field running the football, and maybe he can be utilized some more in the coming games as a change of pace.

Tackling & Defensive "Fit":  For the second time this season, NU just fell apart when a team decided to pound the ball away on the ground, with the 'Cats missing tackles and taking the wrong angles on plays throughout the game.  Northwestern found a way to shore it up two weeks ago following the collapse at Penn State, and they'll have their collective work cut out for them as they face a Wisconsin squad that comes in averaging 40.9 points per game and also feature a multi-pronged running attack.

Second Half Performance:  After coming out of a first half that featured a slew of mistakes, Northwestern found itself down by just 3 at halftime (and, it would get the ball to start the second half).  But, much like in earlier games this season (Penn State, in particular), the 'Cats were flat out-executed throughout the final two quarters.  It's not so much that Northwestern needs to make strategic changes at the half, but they need to come out and execute at the same level or higher than that of their opponent after the break.

Random Observations

Wrigley: No matter what happened on the field, it was a truly unforgettable atmosphere, and while the use of one end zone added an interesting wrinkle to the game it didn't seem to adversely impact the play on the field (as I predicted).  Leading up to the game, Wrigleyville was abuzz with fans from both schools as well as GameDay bringing in national attention.  It was a ton of fun and the probability that a collegiate football game won't return due to field configuration issues makes the experience that much more special.

Attendance:  For the first time since 1998 (when NU faced Ohio State and Michigan in back-to-back weeks), the Wildcats sold out two consecutive football games.  Attendance was 41,058, putting NU's average attendance for 2010 at 36,449: the highest average attendance since 1998 and the biggest year-over-year attendance jump in Northwestern history.  AD Jim Phillips has taken numerous steps to accomplish this and hopefully he has more tricks up his sleeve in order to continue the momentum.

Yards per Play:  The teams were actually relatively even in terms of yards gained per play: NU gained 6.6 yards per play to Illinois' 6.7 yards per play.  The big difference, though, is the fact that Illinois ran a whopping 84 plays to just 48 for the 'Cats.  Northwestern came in averaging over 75 plays per game; the biggest problem for the 'Cats was converting third downs as they went 2-of-10 on the day after coming in averaging over 50%.  That was likely the biggest impact following the loss of Dan Persa.

Bowl Positioning

Northwestern clearly lost momentum by dropping this contest and may have even been passed by Illinois on the bowl ladder, despite coming out of the game with one more win than the Illini.  NU must travel to face Wisconsin in Madison as the Badgers are on a quest to reach the Rose Bowl.  Illinois, although having to travel far west to face a dangerous Fresno State squad, could end the year with momentum on their side and have that head-to-head win to sell to bowl games.  It is very likely that the Texas Bowl will be selecting between these two squads, with the one who is not picked heading to Dallas on New Year's Day in a new and lower-profile bowl game.

NU's cause was helped with losses by Purdue and Indiana, having them join Minnesota as bowl-ineligible with 7 or more losses.  NU was also helped with wins by OSU, Wisconsin, and MSU as the Big Ten is on the cusp of earning an at-large BCS bowl bid which would definitely keep the 'Cats out of Detroit.  The most likely scenario now has the 'Cats headed to the aforementioned bowl game in Dallas, although the Texas bowl is still a strong possibility.  More on what to look for in the final week of Big Ten play in the upcoming preview of the Wisconsin game.

Final Thought

Everyone knew that the 'Cats needed some big plays and a good defensive stand in order to pull off a win with Persa out.  While NU did get some big momentum-shifting plays in their favor, Illinois did as well and the defense seemingly fell apart at times, allowing Illinois to ride their running game to victory while the 'Cats took their expected lumps on offense.  It was a frustrating, but not unexpected result.

But, what everyone will remember is the atmosphere and uniqueness of a football game played at Wrigley with plenty of surrounding hoopla.  Now it's time to move on because there is indeed one game remaining in the 2010 regular season, a very tough matchup against Wisconsin that will help determine the Big Ten champion.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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