Game Preview


Memorial Stadium
Saturday, October 1, 2011.  11:00 am CDT
WGN 720 AM Radio 

Game Preview: Illinois
by Jonathan Hodges

Big Ten play will start off with a bang for the Northwestern Wildcats (2-1, 0-0) as they head to Champaign to face their in-state rivals, the no. 24 (AP) Illinois Fighting Illini (4-0, 0-0) who are coming off of their best start to a season in 60 years. While Illinois got rolling early with four wins at home, the 'Cats will be trying to rebound from a tough loss to Army two weeks ago as they hit the road for the third time in their first four games. Both teams clearly remember what went down at the historic Wrigley game last November, but one significant difference this time around will be the presence of NU QB Dan Persa on the playing field.

That's right, Persa has reportedly been given the go-ahead to play on Saturday (he'll most likely be the starter), which will almost definitely give the Northwestern offense (and whole team for that matter) a much-needed boost after a lackluster performance two weeks ago in West Point. And the potential is certainly there for the Wildcats to pull off an upset win over the Illini given that Illinois barely escaped a pesky Western Michigan team 23-20 a week ago that went almost exclusively with the passing game (Western Michigan missed two field goals earlier in the game that certainly factored into the outcome).

With the start of Big Ten conference play, though, expect both teams to come out fired up for this game, and that's without even considering the rivalry and trophy aspects to this matchup. There will be intriguing storylines in all aspects of the game: the return of Persa, the NU defense looking for redemption after being run over by this team last November, and Fitz still seeking a win that would time him for second on the Northwestern all-time wins list. Illinois will be looking to continue their best season since 1951, when they won a mythical national championship, and will also be motivated to beat the 'Cats due to their annoyance with NU's marketing slogan of "Chicago's Big Ten Team," something noted both last year at Wrigley and in the lead up to this game.

No matter what happened in non-conference play, the Big Ten slate starts at 0-0 for everyone and anything can and will happen in the conference slate. This should be a good matchup of rivals looking to get that key first conference win as they match up at the earliest point in the season since 1998 (when they met on October 3).

Opening Line

Illinois by 7.

Who Should Win


We all saw what happened last year at Wrigley Field, and the Illini have the offense weapons to replicate that performance. QB Nathan Scheelhaase continues to impress, averaging 215.3 yards per game in total offense this year and hitting on over 70% of his pass attempts in 2011. Although last year's RB standout Mikel Leshoure has moved on, they have multiple threats at that position this season with Jason Ford, Donovonn Young, and Troy Pollard splitting carries. And all of that goes without mentioning a strong defense that is allowing just 13 points per game through four games in 2011 and features a strong defensive front that seems to be replicating last year's performance despite losing some key players to graduation. Overall, they have talented players on both sides of the ball to go along with well-designed schemes in those areas as well.

Upset Factor

Not only is this a rivalry game in which Northwestern surely has the motivation to pull off an upset, but Dan Persa will be returning which will certainly give the Wildcats a morale boost (the inverse effect of what we saw when Persa went down with injury late last season, right before the Illinois game). With Persa leading the passing attack, Northwestern certainly has a shot given that Illinois has given up 230.8 yards per game through the air so far this year, with their last opponent pushing them to the brink with their pass-heavy offense. Also, the NU D has played well against the run discounting the Army game, although NU did hold the Black Knights to their lowest total offensive output of the season. Finally, back to the rivalry aspect, which Fitz will certainly play up: the 'Cats are 3-2 vs. Illinois under Fitz and are 6-2 since 2003. NU certainly has the ability to pull off a win here as they should be fired up for this matchup and prepared following NU's off week.

What to Look For: Northwestern Offense vs. Illinois Defense

Look for a significantly different look on offense for the Wildcats with Dan Persa back at the helm as NU looks to capitalize on his passing accuracy while trying to mask any lingering effects of his leg injury. That means NU will likely look to pass quite a bit with him behind center, with a good mix of both short and long passes, while also limiting the number of designed QB runs and/or option plays. Don't expect him to be a statue back there, but also don't expect to see last year's version that ran for over 500 net rushing yards in just 10 games.

Also, don't expect to see Persa for the entire game, either, as OC Mick McCall has already stated that he will be trying to keep the shifty Kain Colter as a part of the offensive attack. At a minimum, that means one will likely see Colter taking at least a few snaps, particularly in the red zone where NU can benefit most from his running ability (Colter already has six rushing TDs in his young career). Also, don't be surprised if the 'Cats try to mix things up by getting both Colter and Persa on the field at the same time to try and keep things interesting (Colter was practicing at wide receiver before Persa went down with his injury last year and he also was on the field at the same time as QB Evan Watkins some during last year's bowl game).

NU would certainly benefit from a strong game out of the RB position, which really didn't have a chance to get things going two weeks ago at Army where they accounted for just 59 yards on the ground. While Illinois' defense is tough to run on (ranking fifth nationally in rush defense yielding just 56.5 yards per game) thanks to a stout defensive front, NU can certainly open up things on the ground with an efficient pass game that will force the Illini to spread things out a little more than they'd like. If the 'Cats can accomplish this and get Mike Trumpy or another RB going, their hopes for an upset will certainly be much better.

The key to the game, though, will likely be the performance of NU's offensive line against the tough DL of Illinois. Although the Wildcat OL had a great first two games, they looked as though they regressed against Army, even though they physically out-sized the Army defensive line by a significant margin. That won't be a problem in this game, though, with Illinois sporting a talented defensive line that includes 305 lb. sophomore Akeem Spence (who has 13 tackles on the year) and a couple of talented junior ends Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan (who have combined for an impressive 7.5 sacks and 9 QB hurries this season). It all starts up front for the Illinois defense, and even though they had to replace NFL draft pick Corey Liuget, they have seemingly picked it right back up on the DL, ranking 13th nationally in TFLs and 14th in sacks.

Overall, they certainly have a stout defense through four games this year, ranking near the top nationally in most major statistical categories on that side of the ball (highlighted by the number 11 ranking for scoring defense, allowing just 13 points per game). While it starts up front by applying lots of pressure in the backfield, the linebackers have certainly done a good job cleaning things up (again replacing the outgoing star Martez Wilson) with the leader Ian Thomas in the middle (tied for second on the team with 22 tackles), an athletic sophomore Jonathan Brown on one side, and converted defensive back Trulon Henry on the other side. They have certainly opted to go with speed over size at LB (the starters average 233.3 lbs), and it seems to be working. Finally, in the secondary, CB Tavon WIlson leads the team in tackles with 24, and the unit has been making some plays, with 16 passes defended from the group and a 23rd ranking nationally in pass efficiency defense.

So, how will the Wildcat offense stand a chance in this one? It will be up to Persa to show off his accuracy and find the open man: in Illinois' aforementioned game against Western Michigan a week ago, the Broncos were able to move the ball well at times through the air and as long as the NU OL can hold back that pressure from the Illini front seven, Persa will be able to find a man to throw to. Also, despite all of Illinois' gaudy defensive numbers, note that their opponents' cumulative records so far are just 8-8, with four of those wins coming against FCS competition. Northwestern with Persa at the helm should present their biggest challenge of the year, and one certainly hopes that Dan and his bevy of talented wide receivers (which will now have their time to shine with Persa back) can make a dent in Illinois' defensive numbers.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense vs. Illinois Offense

Once again, the NU defense will be facing a formidable ground attack that they must try and contain in order to give the 'Cats a shot in this one. A year ago, Illinois ran wild on the ground in a game that I don't need to spend too much time recounting, but thankfully the main culprit, Mikel Leshoure, is off to the next level. In his place are the aforementioned trio of Ford, Young, and Pollard, along with Scheelhaase at QB who will most certainly be intent on running the ball early and often (thus far in 2011 they have run the ball 70.1% of the time and scored two thirds of their TDs on the ground). And although their determination to run is almost to the level of NU's last opponent, the scheme is completely different even though it does contain some option elements.

Illinois has a big and rather experienced starting offensive line that averages 308 lbs. and includes two seniors and two juniors, and is most certainly a big reason behind the Illini 4.9 yards per attempt average on the ground this year. But, it's not just a ground threat, but Scheelhaase can also throw, especially when opponents are getting sucked into the line of scrimmage to defend against the run; he is completing over 70% of his passes this year and has an excellent primary target in senior WR AJ Jenkins. The Illini pass on average 21 times per game, so they will present much more of a threat through the air than Army while also maintaining that big running threat (both Pollard and Young have popped runs of 50 or more yards this year). Needless to say (especially when reviewing last year's matchup), the NU defense has its work cut out for itself.

Thankfully, the 'Cats get a bit of a boost on the personnel front with vital senior DT Jack DiNardo returning, redshirt freshman Collin Ellis looking to make his debut (he was named a starting OLB before a hand injury in preseason camp), and David Arnold cracking the two-deep again at safety. The Wildcats will need all the help that they can get given last year's gashing as well as last week's result. The key will be for the NU defensive line to apply consistent pressure in the backfield with the linebackers having to fill in the running lanes and make the tackle. Against Illinois last November, NU almost routinely had defenders leaving a lane open, leading to huge holes with a lot of room to run; and last week, NU's LBs seemed hesitant at times, leading to openings and missed tackles. Hopefully Fitz has instilled a new attitude into the front seven during the bye week to address these deficiencies.

The Wildcats supposedly have some of the best young personnel in some time, and this will be the game in which they are truly tested. The corps of linebackers in particular will be tested, and it will be time for the leaders to take care of business (Ben Johnson, Bryce McNaul) and some of the younger guys to step up (Ellis, David Nwabuisi).

Finally, the secondary, where Jordan Mabin has been strong thus far (with an interception and pass break-up) and Brian Peters has continued to lead by example with 15 tackles and 1.5 TFLs. The key for the defensive backs will be to provide enough run support while also not getting caught when Illinois calls up a pass. Look for the Illini to test the still inexperienced Jeravin Matthews deep with a taller guy like WR Spencer Harris (6'3") or a bigger tight end like the 6'6" Evan Wilson. Hopefully the DBs have had a chance to improve their technique over the bye week and will be able to prevent long bombs that have the potential to be devastating.

Overall, Northwestern must hope to contain the Illinois running game enough to get off the field, because if they get the ground game churning, they could very well be in big trouble much like last game and these teams' meeting last season. This will be a huge test for Mike Hankwitz's defense and will tell if the 'Cats' defensive recruiting is up to snuff.

What to Look for: Special Teams

NU won't get any breaks on special teams with Illinois fielding a very solid kicker, Derek Dimke, who is a very solid 87.5% on FGs for his career (and has made all 70 extra point tries), but the 'Cats have somehow projected bad luck onto otherwise decent kickers so far this season with opponents hitting on just 1-of-5 field goals this season. On the other side of the ball, though, NU has had a somewhat bumpy ride with new kicker Jeff Budzien missing on his two most recent attempts after hitting his first collegiate field goal try at Boston College. Once again, in a close game things seem to favor Illinois (who essentially won thanks to superior kicking last week).

In other aspects of special teams, though, the 'Cats may find some reason for hope. Illinois ranks a measly 92nd in kick return defense, while the Wildcats rank eight in the country in kickoff returns thanks to Venric Mark's 28.9 yards/kick average. And in the punt game, Illinois is 95th in net punting while Mark has once again led the 'Cats to a 25th national ranking in punt returns. NU can certainly use the field position boost that these numbers imply, and Mark can certainly give the team a huge psychological jolt by getting a big return in this game. Look for this to be a significant factor in the game, especially since Mark looks ready to go all the way on almost every return.

On the flipside, NU has been competent enough on coverage teams, ranking 16th on punt return defense and 38th against kick returns. Meanwhile, Illinois hasn't done anything special in the return game, ranking below 90th in both categories. Although the 'Cats have trouble getting the ball deep (Steve Flaherty has only two touchbacks on the year while NU's net punting is ranked 92nd thanks to some Brandon Williams shanks against Army), the coverage teams have been very solid in preventing any returns. Again, this is pretty solidly in Northwestern's favor, and they could certainly use this to help pin Illinois deep as they will almost certainly accumulate some yards on offense.

In summary, hopefully Mark can balance out any field goal kicking advantage for Illinois with some nice returns; a score on special teams would certainly be a huge boon to NU's chances.

Miscellaneous Notes

Northwestern after Disappointing Losses

Since 1995, Northwestern has a 0.564 winning rate during seasons in which they incur a loss as a favorite; the 'Cats are 0.383 in seasons without such a loss. This of course skews in favor of seasons in which NU is more often playing as a favorite, and one would expect this senior-laden team to fare well for the remainder of the year.

Illinois vs. Fitz

Fitz is 3-2 versus Illinois as the Northwestern head coach and he most certainly has this rivalry game "circled" in his head (along with Iowa, of course). Interestingly, in those five games, Illinois has pretty poor passing numbers: 49.6% completion rate, 1.2 interceptions per game, just 0.6 passing TDs per game, and 139.8 passing yards per game. While their success running the ball (particularly in the two Illinois wins in 2007 and 2010) skews the numbers, NU certainly hopes it can continue this trend in the air.

After the Bye

Fitz is 0-2 in the regular season following an off week (both losses were to Michigan State at home), and 0-3 in bowl games (after multiple off weeks). But, he has managed to go 6-0 in season openers (including three wins against BCS conference opponents).

More NU vs. Illinois

The winner of this game will take over the lead in Land of Lincoln Trophy wins (currently tied 1-1), and the overall series remains close at 53-46-5 in favor of the Illini. But, Northwestern has won six of the last eight meetings, and since 2000, Northwestern has averaged 30.9 points per game against the Illini (fewest was 21 in NU's 2009 win in Champaign).

Injury Report


DT Brian Arnfelt (out, foot), DT Jack DiNardo (probable, leg), S Jared Carpenter (out, wrist), LB Collin Ellis (probable, hand), LB Roderick Goodlow (out, leg), WR Tony Jones (out, leg), RB Adonis Smith (questionable, ankle), QB Dan Persa (probable, Achilles).

The Wildcats have experienced more than a few injuries early this season, but they will likely get some key pieces back for the start of Big Ten play, with Persa most likely seeing his first action in 2011 (he said last week that he "would be shocked" if he didn't play on Saturday). Also, key defensive tackle Jack DiNardo looks to be back which will add some much-needed depth and experience to the defensive front after missing the last couple games. It also appears as though Ellis will be ready to go for what will possibly be his first collegiate action (he is a redshirt freshman who was slated to start at the beginning of the season), although he is still behind Ben Johnson on the two-deep (but will still likely make the field at some point). While Arnfelt and Smith may still be out, getting some of these guys back will certainly help NU's cause.


FB Zach Becker (out, leg).

One big reason behind Illinois' early season success: lack of any significant injuries. Becker, the only significant injury, is a backup fullback who also plays on special teams. While they've had a few minor nicks through the first few games, they've been running essentially at full strength, which is in stark contrast to the 'Cats who have been without significant contributors (starting quarterback, a couple running backs, and two of the most experienced defensive tackles).


Northwestern 21, Illinois 30

I am very tempted to pick the 'Cats to pull off the upset here because I think NU will get a huge psychological boost with the return of Dan Persa and has the potential to get an on-the-field boost from Venric Mark in the return game. But, it is just too difficult to put that much faith in a defense that has been shredded by the run game dating to this matchup last season along with the fact that the Illini seem to have things going for them on both sides of the ball right now.

This will certainly be a telling game as NU is looking to recover from last game's loss while Illinois is looking to establish itself as a player in search of a division title. Look for the 'Cats to be much more competitive with Persa at the helm and look for both teams to play with plenty of emotion and fire into this reinvigorated rivalry series that seems to carry more meaning now than in years past.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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