Post-Game Analysis: Illinois
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (2-2, 0-1) and Illinois Fighting Illini (5-0, 1-0) certainly opened up Big Ten play with a bang on Saturday, with NU building a 28-10 lead midway through the third quarter, only to allow the Illini to fight back and take the lead in the fourth. The two would exchange blows until Illinois finally came out on top as Northwestern's last-gasp hook-and-lateral play failed with Kain Colter failing to get the gain beat out an Illinois defender, keeping the Land of Lincoln Trophy in Champaign with a final score of 38-35 in favor of the Illini.

NU QB Dan Persa finally returned to the field, and although he was a bit rusty at the start, he certainly came on strong as he went 10-of-14 passing for 123 yards and a career-high 4 TDs passing. Unfortunately, Persa would leave the game early in the fourth quarter with foot pain and be held out the rest of the way for precautionary reasons (it was reported after the game that he will be able to play next week, thankfully). But, the Northwestern offense was not able to move the ball as efficiently without him the rest of the way, which certainly played into the conclusion of the game.

But, ultimately, Northwestern lost thanks to its play on defense, as they allowed Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase to pass like crazy: for 391 yards and 3 TDs, 268 of which went to WR AJ Jenkins (including all three of those scoring passes). Although the Wildcats generated some pressure early and accumulated four sacks on the day, much of those came early in the game, with the 'Cats going into prevent-mode late and allowing a 69 yard game-winning drive from the Illini late while sticking with a three-man rush that was utterly ineffective. Also, it was clear that NU sold out to stop the run early (which they did a fairly good job of, holding Illinois to 82 net rushing yards and 2.2 yards per carry, but that meant there were wide open spaces in the defensive backfield, with Illinois averaging an impressive 18.6 yards per completion. Ultimately, that strategy coupled with Persa coming out of the game would be the Wildcats' undoing.

It was certainly an emotional game with so much back-and-forth at the end and the 'Cats having to deal with both the gain and subsequent loss of Dan Persa, but Northwestern must "flush" the game quickly (in Fitz parlance) as they will be visited by a ranked Michigan squad this coming Saturday night for what should be another tough battle. NU certainly showed that it can play with just about anyone (especially with Persa at the helm), although it certainly must make some adjustments on defense in order to win some games down the stretch.

First Half Summary

Northwestern QB Dan Persa made his comeback from that Achilles tendon injury as anticipated, but he certainly had some rust to knock off early, with NU going three-and-out on its first two drives. The NU defense, meanwhile, started off pretty well against the Illini; after being torched on the ground a year ago, they started off their first drive with three consecutive TFLs, forcing an Illinois punt. On the second drive, they allowed Illinois to move the ball to within first-and-goal (thanks to Illinois passing and a couple of costly penalties), but got the ball back thanks to a Brian Peters interception in the end zone. After NU's second three-and-out, a very short (11 yard) Brandon Williams punt gave Illinois great field position, and they took advantage with Scheelhaase connecting with Jenkins for their first TD of the day to take an early 7-0 lead.

But, in a long methodical drive spanning the end of the first quarter into the second, the aforementioned Persa led the 'Cats on a 12 play 69 yard drive capped by a TD toss to Drake Dunsmore that tied the game. After trading possessions through much of the rest of the quarter, NU got another much-needed spark off of a Illinois fumble (a failed option pitch from Scheelhaase), that set NU up at the Illinois 36. NU would take advantage, with Persa finding his favorite target, Jeremy Ebert, streaking across the end zone to give the Wildcats a 14-7 lead.

Illinois would valiantly attempt to tie the game, though, by going through the air early and often as they appeared to get that tie with another Scheelhaase pass, but that was denied thanks to a controversial pass interference call against the offense (the wide receiver, Spencer Harris, appeared to push off of CB Jordan Mabin's facemask just before the catch). That forced the Illini to kick a long 49 yard field goal to pull within four just before the half.

Second Half Summary

Northwestern started off the second half by taking the kick and methodically driving down the field once again, this time with Colter coming in to spell Persa for a play (he would pick up a first down with a five yard run), and the drive was capped with a beautiful 39 yard Persa to Ebert pass for their second TD connection of the day to put NU up 21-10. The zenith of NU's day would come next, as they forced an Illinois three-and-out, and Venric Mark provided another spark with a 28 yard punt return that set up Persa to once again lead the 'Cats down the field starting at the Illini 39. On fourth and four, Persa made what looked to be the play of the day by escaping two would-be drive-ending tackles and finding Jacob Schmidt for a first down and more. He would go on to find Ebert in the end zone for a third time to put the Wildcats up 28-10 in the third quarter, and things were certainly looking good for NU with Persa back behind center.

Unfortunately, that's when the breakdowns on defense began and things started to turn south for Northwestern. Before the third quarter was even over, Scheelhaase quickly moved the Illini down the field and found AJ Jenkins again for a 33 yard touchdown as receivers seemed to be open on virtually every play while the Northwestern pass rush had essentially disappeared. And at the very beginning of the fourth quarter, those two Illini would once again hook up, this time for a 50 yard bomb as Jenkins left multiple Wildcat defenders chasing near the goal line, where he hauled in the pass to suddenly pull within one score (although the two point conversion try would fail, leaving NU with a 28-23 lead). The tides certainly changed very quickly, specifically due to NU's lackluster (to say it mildly) pass defense.

On the ensuing drive, though, came what looked to be the most severe blow to the 'Cats' chances. As Persa was moving through the backfield to try and avoid a loss, he was tripped up and seemed to put his feet down awkwardly and would quickly limp off the field under his own power. Colter would come in to unsuccessfully try and gain a first down, while Persa would remain out for the rest of the game with trainers studying his previously injured tendon to confirm no further damage. (As mentioned earlier, it was reported after the game that he had experienced some foot pain and will likely play next week but was held out as a precautionary measure.) Northwestern would be forced to punt, and the psychological boost from Persa would quickly evaporate for the 'Cats.

While the 'Cats wouldn't give up a huge bomb this time around, they certainly didn't prevent the Illini from marching down the field and taking the lead for the first time since the second quarter. Scheelhaase would extend the drive with five passes for first downs and Illinois capped it off with their first rushing TD of the day and then convert the two point try to take a 31-28 lead. And, without Persa in, things looked grim for the 'Cats chances of a comeback with just under seven minutes remaining in the game.

Then came what would become a controversial drive for Northwestern; controversial in the play calling. NU was down by three and driving for a game-tying or lead-taking score late in the fourth, knowing that their defense had been unable to slow down Illinois for much of the second half. But, trying to play to Colter's strengths, NU OC Mick McCall dialed up a bunch of running plays; on this drive, NU ran the ball seven times and passed just once (a 14 yard completion to Ebert). The most controversial portion of the drive came on third-and-eight from the Illini 39 yard line. McCall called up a rush from Treyvon Green (who had an alright day with 67 net rushing yards on 17 carries) which went for no gain. Northwestern was certainly in four down territory, but a run up the middle (which didn't work in NU's last game at Army late in the fourth quarter) didn't seem like the best way to throw the Illinois D off balance. On fourth down, Colter dropped back to pass, was quickly flustered, and unsuccessfully tried to scramble for the first down, coming up four yards short.

At this point, the game looked to be over with Illinois only needing to bleed some clock and walk away with the win. But, in typical Northwestern fashion, the game would finish on a much more dramatic note. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Illinois' Jason Ford would get stripped by Brian Peters on a run up the middle, with Tyler Scott recovering and giving the 'Cats another chance. Once again, NU stuck to the ground game, but this time it would be effective as Green, Colter, and Schmidt would move the ball down to within reach of the goal line, with Schmidt carrying the ball over the line with a leg-churning six yard run that used an Illinois defender to keep him from hitting the ground. NU would go up by four, but there was seemingly way too much time left on the clock (1:15, with Illinois sporting all three timeouts), especially with Illinois' success in the passing game.

The Illini would quickly drive down close to the goal on just four plays thanks to a long pass to Jenkins, a Scheelhaase scramble, and another costly penalty against the 'Cats. At the NU four yard line, the 'Cats would try to hold back the tide, but Illinois was just too close and Scheelhaase was able to get over the line on a QB sneak with just 13 ticks left on the clock) which put the Illini up 38-35.

Northwestern would get one last gasp, after returning the kickoff 16 yards and setting up on their own 37 yard line, Colter completed a pass to Ebert, who then would toss a lateral back to Colter on the other side of the field. Colter had what looked to be an open field beyond one Illini defender, but he was unfortunately caught by said defender, and although there was some fumbling to try and keep the play alive, that was all she wrote for the 'Cats. The Land of Lincoln Trophy would stay with Illinois for the second consecutive year and Illinois backed up their war of words on the rivalry front with a victory to boost them to a 5-0 record on the season.

Player of the Game

Illinois WR AJ Jenkins (12 catches for 268 yards, 3 TDs; 4 kickoff returns for 60 yards) Although Scheelhaase deserves a nod for almost 400 passing yards, Jenkins was most certainly the primary target and beneficiary of those passes and he deserves credit for exploiting the NU DBs virtually all day by getting open and hauling in those passes. Take away his effort, and it's unlikely that Illinois would have been able to stage such a come-from-behind win.

What Happened

"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 Northwestern defense was clearly dead-set on preventing a replication of last year's game, loading up the box to prevent Illinois from piling up rushing yards. While they certainly accomplished that goal by giving up just the aforementioned 82 net rushing yards, this left the NU defensive backs to try and stem the tide, which was made that much more difficult when the pass rush essentially disappeared. Scheelhaase ended up completing almost 66% of his passes on the day and gained passing yards in huge chunks, and Jenkins was the one who racked up most of those yards. The still-inexperienced Jeravin Matthews was the primary victim on many of those plays, while redshirt freshman Ibraheim Campbell also played a big role in the thrashing; one hopes that this will be a growing experience for the secondary as a whole with so many other potent offenses coming up on the 'Cats' schedule.

"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."

Yeah, that didn't happen.

"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."

The NU offense certainly looked different, scoring almost as many points as they did against their two 2011 FBS opponents combined, and Persa was certainly a huge factor in that. But, Northwestern definitely tried to keep the ground game going, keeping it on the ground 76% of the time on the day. One hopes that this was just a breaking-in period for Persa and the offense and that they can pick things up even more down the stretch, although this was certainly a promising start.

"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."

It would certainly have been a stretch to put too much faith in the NU defense, but this time around it was the pass defense that failed instead of the rush defense. In fact, it was almost a perfect reversal (last year, Illinois had 519 net rushing yards and 40 yards passing, this year they had 82 net rushing yards and 391 through the air). And, unlike last week when the offense scored just 14 points, 35 points should be enough to win a game if the defense was able to make even a couple of plays down the stretch.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

QB Dan Persa (10-of-14 passing for 123 yards, 4 TDs 0 INTs; 5 rushes for 14 yards without sacks) Despite the fact that Persa didn't throw the ball all over the field and was unable to finish the game, he had a huge impact, throwing four perfect TD strikes and showing that he is a potent weapon for the Wildcat offense. Hopefully, he will be able to continue to give the NU offense a boost for the remainder of his senior season.

RB Mike Trumpy (12 carries for 63 yards) Trumpy averaged over 5 yards per carry and was certainly a big reason why NU accumulated a significant lead, but unfortunately he, like Persa, had to leave (his was a knee injury). He has emerged as NU's biggest running threat and will hopefully be able to carry the pill for the 'Cats down the stretch.

WR Jeremy Ebert (5 catches for 68 yards, 3 TDs) Once again, Ebert did virtually all he could to try and lead NU to a win, this time catching three touchdown passes from Persa and also making a nice lateral on NU's last gasp effort to pull out a win. He will likely be a big factor for the Northwestern offense down the stretch, particularly with Persa at the helm.

RB Jacob Schmidt (6 carries for 14 yards, 1 TD; 3 catches for 40 yards) Although he doesn't have gaudy stats, his effort was apparent, particularly on his go-ahead touchdown where he used his churning legs to find the end zone. He was also stellar as a receiver out of the backfield, doing very well on screens and also being there to catch that key fourth down conversion from Persa.

What to Work on

Pass Defense

The Northwestern secondary got burned quite often, and the inexperienced Matthews and Campbell were certainly big factors in that. While Mabin and Peters must also share some of the blame, they both put in a good amount of effort (particularly Peters, who led NU in tackles with 13 and had an interception and forced fumble). But, they left receivers wide open multiple times and failed to hold onto a large lead. There were breakdowns in technique, questionable strategy, and just plain bad play. While one must not expect them to be perfect all of the time (especially with a limited pass rush), they should certainly be able to cover enough to win with such a significant lead.


While some fans have gone a little too far by calling for the heads of both coordinators (with some even questioning Fitz), the strategic side can certainly use some work. The defensive strategy seemed to be working early (by completely containing the run game), but Illinois obviously adjusted later on. Instead of keeping the pressure on up front, the NU D almost completely relied on the secondary by rushing only three, and that plan backfired in a big way. There is now a trend, with both Boston College and Illinois putting up huge passing numbers in comebacks after NU posted big leads in both games. On the other side of the ball, NU's insistence on sticking to the ground (particularly with Colter behind center) has come back to bite the 'Cats for the second straight game. There were indeed errors in execution, but Northwestern's strategy certainly didn't help matters.

Random Observations

Turnover Margin

Northwestern has gone 0-2 this season when winning the turnover margin (the 'Cats won it 1-0 at Army and 3-0 at Illinois), while going 2-0 when tying (against BC and Eastern Illinois). The three turnovers gained against Illinois (which the 'Cats turned into 14 points with the other preventing an Illinois score) certainly helped keep them in the game, they weren't enough to put NU over the edge (especially with the defense unable to slow them down on the yardage front). While gaining turnovers certainly helps, one must still make stops on D to win the game.

Fitz after Byes

Fitz is now 0-3 after in-season bye weeks (0-6 if one counts bowl games in those numbers), and remains tied for third on NU's all-time wins list, unable to tie Randy Walker for second for the second straight week. While Fitz remains a perfect fit for Northwestern and isn't going anywhere, many have rightly begun to question his in-game strategy, as he's given up a 17 point (or greater) lead in a Big Ten game for the third time since the beginning of last season.

Next Week

Northwestern will head home for their first game of the year against an FBS opponent and will host a Michigan team that will travel for the first time this season (they, like Illinois and Wisconsin, have accumulated 5-0 records entirely at home so far this year). It will be the first time that NU will face Denard Robinson, and the defense will certainly be in store for a workout with Michigan coming off of a 58-0 win over seemingly hapless Minnesota.

Final Thought

For those that are completely infuriated with Fitz and the 'Cats coaching staff, remember two things: 1. there are two sides trying to win every game, and the other side has their share of athletes who can (and do) make plays, and 2. these are college students who can and do make mistakes. Northwestern is certainly experiencing a disappointing start to the year, but they have once again been "in" every game that they have played and have shown the ability to play with anyone with their most recent performance. Every team they will face down the stretch has shown some sort of weakness (if not all-around weakness in the cases of Minnesota and Indiana), and the 'Cats certainly have the ability to rise up and take down almost anyone left on their schedule.

While we are all disappointed, next week brings a new opportunity for the Wildcats and NU will most certainly find a way to entertain us, even if they don't manage to win every time out.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

Previous jhodges commentary