Game Preview


Eastern Illinois
Ryan Field
Saturday, September 10, 2011.  2:30 pm CDT
ESPN 1000 Radio

Game Preview: Eastern Illinois
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (1-0, 0-0) will open their 2011 home schedule against FCS (formerly I-AA) member Eastern Illinois Panthers (1-0), who defeated NU's 2010 FCS opponent (Illinois State) in week one. The 'Cats, of course, defeated a solid Boston College squad on the road to open the year and will now get somewhat of a break as they face a lower subdivision team followed by a trip to Army next week. With certain personnel questions still swirling (Dan Persa), NU can likely field backups for a good portion of this game in order to build the team's health for a tough stretch of Big Ten games beginning October 1.

Speaking of Persa, it seems very unlikely that he will see the field against EIU given that he did not dress against Boston College and his backup, Kain Colter, admirably led NU to a victory. Given that and the fact that Northwestern has seemingly found a way to run the football again (with NU's running backs contributing a nice 5.1 yards per carry against BC), NU hardly needs Persa to succeed against the Panthers. In his stead, expect to see plenty of Colter but also possibly the collegiate debut of Trevor Siemian once garbage time inevitably arrives.

Along the same lines, Northwestern will test out its younger players across the board later in the game on Saturday, and Coach Fitzgerald specifically called out some of the younger defensive linemen Anthony Battle, Davon Custis, and Sean McEvilly as guys who will likely see time given that DT Jack DiNardo will be sidelined and Brian Arnfelt will also likely remain out. Expect to see a lot of underclassmen on the field across the board, though, as Fitz divvies out valuable playing time to build experience for his squad.

The Wildcats can't completely go to sleep in this game, though, as EIU showed that they can do the job through the air, having thrown the ball for 304 yards, 3 TDs, and 0 INTs in their season debut against the aforementioned Illinois State Redbirds. And, as shown against BC, the 'Cats' primary defensive weakness is against the pass as they were carved up o the tune of 351 yards through the air. If NU's pass defense woes continue and make some errors (turnovers), this game could require starters to play longer than expected, and that certainly would not please Fitz.

Opening Line

No line.

Who Should Win


Over the past four seasons, the Wildcats have dominated their FCS opponents, having just plain outmatched them even with backups garnering a significant amount of playing time and NU running vanilla schemes for those contests. Expect more of the same here, as Eastern Illinois is at best a middle tier FCS team this season and they got dinged up on the ground in week one to the tune of 5.2 yards per carry. If NU runs the ball as well as they did against BC, who had a formidable run defense, they should be just fine even if they refuse to throw the ball on Saturday.

Upset Factor

Just look to Fitz's first year at the helm where NU got soundly upset by New Hampshire. The Wildcats will certainly be playing a good amount of young players in this game, and EIU will be looking to take advantage of that youth. Also, don't think that they haven't seen the game film from BC; the Panthers will certainly look to take to the air and test that defensive backfield, particularly Jeravin Matthews, early and often. If they can manage to get the 'Cats on their heels and stay in the game going into the second half, anything could happen. There have already been two FCS over FBS upsets this year: Richmond over Duke and Sacramento State over Oregon State (plus, Stony Brook took UTEP to overtime and Iowa State had to score a TD in the final minute to beat Northern Iowa).

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense vs. Eastern Illinois Defense

Expect the 'Cats to use its suddenly revitalized ground game early and often against the Panthers, who the NU OL should be able to wear down and/or push around. Colter certainly demonstrated that he is an effective passer against BC, but don't expect to see him making too many throws in this game unless EIU completely sells out to stop the run. Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith will certainly get their share of carries, especially with Fitz emphasizing to Colter the importance of reducing the number of hits taken by the QB (something Persa had to learn at times last year as well). And once the lead gets comfortable, expect to see plenty from Jacob Schmidt as well as some from true freshman Treyvon Green who got his feet wet with one carry at BC. Fitz certainly has a number of options at RB, and for the first time since 2008 it appears as though he has some good options at that key position.

A lot is due to the aforementioned offensive line, who did a solid job against Boston College and look to continue that trend here. The starting line seems to be pretty much solidified, but the backups will certainly get their shot in this one later in the game; in the preseason Fitz mentioned that this unit went 10 deep and one should fully expect to see at least 10 different linemen play on Saturday. This will give NU a good chance to bolster their already good level of experience on the OL. Another deep unit is the wide receivers, and expect plenty of guys to rotate in here and get some practice running routes and, more importantly for this game, blocking. The receiving corps did a great job at BC with very few mistakes and some great catches and blocks to make the rest of the offense look that much better; one would hope they can continue that here in week two.

On the other side of the ball, EIU had some difficulty against the run in week one, allowing 5.2 yards per carry to Illinois State, but the Panthers did force four turnovers (two fumbles and two interceptions) which led to 14 points and allowed them to close out the game. Redshirt senior Nick Martinez has an apparent eye for the football as grabbed both INTs last week, while senior OLB Cory Leman led the team in tackles with 11 (he also led the team in stops last season with 95). The Panters' DL will be relatively outsized by NU's OL: the EIU starting four defensive linemen average 263 lbs. while the starting NU offensive linemen average 301 lbs. This should give the Wildcats ground game an even bigger boost, plus NU has the advantage of depth as the backup five linemen average just about the same (302 lbs.) while EIU backup DL averages significantly less than their starters (246 lbs.). Overall, this is a nice recipe for plenty of running from the 'Cats, and when NU does choose to throw the ball they should be able to quite effectively protect the QB (EIU didn't generate any sacks in week one either).

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense vs. Eastern Illinois Offense

As mentioned earlier, EIU will most certainly test the 'Cats' secondary as they were relatively successful passing the ball in their week one come-from-behind win (and also less than impressive running the ball). The number of yards per play reflect that fact: the Panthers averaged a solid 8.7 yards per pass attempt (and didn't turn the ball over through the air) while averaging a measly 1.8 yards per carry on the ground (that improves to a still-low 2.3 after accounting for sacks). Against a Northwestern line that effectively shut down the Boston College run game for much of that contest, expect the Panthers to take to the air with the arm of true sophomore QB Jimmy Garoppolo who started seven games last year and was named to his conference's all-newcomer team.

The biggest receiving threat is senior Lorence Ricks who had 114 receiving yards and a TD last week, and junior Chris Wright will also likely be a target (he had five grabs last week including one touchdown and leads EIU's returning receivers with six TDs from a year ago); fortunately for the 'Cats both are listed at just 6'1" and NU's 5'11 cornerbacks will have a much easier time covering them than the 6'6" Ifeanyi Momah last week. In fact, don't be surprised to see NU play backup CBs Ricky Weina and Demetrius Dugar some in place of the experienced Jordan Mabin, who Fitz won't want running around the defensive backfield all day. Do expect to see a good amount of the less-experienced Jeravin Matthews who would certainly benefit from some additional work on the field.

Don't expect to see anything too exotic out of the NU D, but one should expect the line to make some noise in the pass rush department. They looked pretty solid a week ago against a much larger offensive front; remember those stats I put up before on NU's OL? EIU starters come in averaging just 282 lbs, almost a full 20 lbs. smaller, on average, than NU's line. I would imagine that Vince Browne, Tyler Scott, and gang will have plenty of opportunities to make things happen behind the line of scrimmage. And, if they do, expect this game to tilt in NU's favor fairly quickly.

This game will mostly be a test for those younger players like Battle, Custis, and McEvilly on the line; also expect to see plenty of Chi Chi Ariguzo, Damien Proby, and even some Tim Riley in the LB corps as Fitz tries to season those young players. Also, Ibraheim Campbell will likely see plenty of playing time back at safety as he looks to even out his performance after an up and down week one (he was the primary cause behind BC's 69 yard on the first play from scrimmage, but he later made up for that with some nice tackles). Playing time is invaluable, so expect the younger guys to get a lot of work.

What to Look for: Special Teams

Last week, NU's across-the-board strong effort on special teams was a huge reason behind their win (meanwhile, BC missed two FGs, including a chip shot). This week, NU fans certainly hope that special teams don't make a difference, although hopefully an opponent decides to punt to Venric Mark at some point (BC mostly punted short to avoid Mark, as NU didn't have any returns on four punts). More placekicking reps for Jeff Budzien wouldn't hurt, either, although one would hope those would be on extra points instead of field goals against an FCS team.

On the other side of the field, true sophomore Cameron Berra will be handling placekicking, and he made his only FG attempt of the year last week and was a respectable 8-of-11 last year with a career long of 43 yards (he's also hit 95.8% of his XPs). Otherwise, the biggest danger is returner Ricks (who was mentioned earlier in his WR role); last week he had a 50 yard kick return and a total of 141 kick return yards. Hopefully NU kickoff specialist Steve Flaherty can routinely back him up into the end zone while the coverage team does their thing.

Miscellaneous Notes:

NU vs. FCS Teams

After being embarrassed in his home opener as head coach by FCS member New Hampshire (by a significant margin of 34-17 nonetheless), Coach Fitzgerald has taken it to the lower subdivision, outscoring NU's most recent four FCS opponents by a combined score of 144-24 (an average final of 36-6). Over those games, NU has run the ball on average 45.5 times per game (61.1% of NU's offensive snaps in those games) and has averaged 182.5 yards per game (and 4.0 yards per carry).

Attendance vs. FCS

The Wildcats have somewhat understandably not done very well in the attendance department against FCS schools: in those 5 games NU has averaged under 20,000 per game (19,739), and three of the games rank in the bottom five for NU attendance since 1995 (including the least attended game vs. Northeastern in 2007, 16,199). While there were extenuating circumstances in some of these games (games against Northeastern and Towson were over Labor Day weekend and the Southern Illinois game was played in a consistent downpour that set a Chicago 24 hour rainfall record), overall the picture obviously isn't pretty. Thankfully, things trended up last year with a mark of 25,471 against Illinois State, and hopefully the trend will continue: this contest will be NU's Evanston Day (discounted ticked promotion for Evanston residents) and NUMB will be in attendance (amongst other promotions and another increase in season ticket sales).

Injury Report


DL Brian Arnfelt (out, foot), Jack DiNardo (out, leg), S Mike Bolden (out, leg), S Jared Carpenter (out, wrist), LB Collin Ellis (out, hand), LB Roderick Goodlow (out, leg), WR Tony Jones (out, leg), QB Dan Persa (doubtful, leg).

Fitz only confirmed that DiNardo would be out following an injury in the BC game, but it's fairly certain that the rest of the players held out for the opening contest will also likely miss this one. Fortunately NU has enough depth to weather the storm, particularly against an FCS opponent in which they would normally trot out reserve players anyway. Plus, with another manageable opponent next week (Army) and a bye following that, there is plenty of time for these guys to heal before Big Ten play rolls around on October 1.

Eastern Illinois

None of note.


Northwestern 38, Eastern Illinois 10

I see NU utilizing its newly solidified running game early and often in this contest, with the committee of running backs piling up the yards for the 'Cats and likely eclipsing 200 yards on the ground for the third consecutive game. Fitz will keep the play calling vanilla, though, and will rotate in those aforementioned younger players as the score tilts heavily in NU's favor, thereby preventing a completely lopsided score. On defense, EIU will throw the ball a lot to test the secondary, and although NU will get burned at times, the pass rush from the DL will make the Panthers pay. At the end of the day, this will be a relatively boring contest, but that is a good thing for the 'Cats who can use the opportunity to provide playing time to their developing underclassmen. Once this business is taken care of, it'll be time to focus on Army's unique style of play and another challenging road trip.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

Previous jhodges commentary