Game Preview


Northwestern at Illinois
Memorial Stadium
Saturday, Nov. 17.  Time: 11:00 am CST
TV: ESPN "The Uno"
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Illinois
by Jonathan Hodges

In the final game of the regular season for both teams, Northwestern (6-5, 3-4) comes into the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk rivalry game riding a 4 game winning streak over Illinois (8-3, 5-2), who is coming off of an upset of the #1 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes last week in Columbus.  The game has big implications for both sides: Northwestern is trying to solidify a bowl berth (reaching 7-5 is basically a requirement this year as the Big Ten already has 10 bowl eligible teams and only 7 guaranteed slots), while Illinois is trying to put itself in prime position to grab a Florida New Years Day bowl berth (and an outside chance at a BCS berth if the cards fall right).  The game will be televised nationally on ESPN (albeit opposite the Ohio State/Michigan game which will be on ABC).

This game will actually be the first time since 1964 that both teams have come into this rivalry game with a winning record.  This is the 101st meeting of Northwestern and Illinois (series began in 1892), the teams have both had a winning record only 22 times - with 14 of those times being 1930 or earlier.  And only 34 times total have both teams had a .500 record or better, the last time being in 2000 when NU was playing to grab a share of the Big Ten title (which they did) and Illinois was grasping at a chance for a bowl berth (which they failed to do).  Note that 4 of those times where both teams had a .500 record or better were the first game of the season for both teams (1984, 1982, 1980, 1978), which included the horrific 1978 0-0 tie game.

Illinois is riding high off of its first win over a #1 ranked team in over 50 years, and comes in with the Big Ten's leading rushing attack (at 261.2 yds/game, good for 6th nationally) which is carried by QB "Juice" Williams and RB Rashard Mendenhall, who have combined for over 2,000 yards already this season.  And Williams has established somewhat of a passing threat after throwing for 4 TDs against OSU last week (although he had only 140 passing yards on the day).  This obviously presents a problem for Northwestern, whose rushing defense is 9th in the conference and 63rd nationally, yielding 153.1 yds/game.

Meanwhile, NU's offense remains the Big Ten's leading total offense (432.1 yds/game) and is ranked 28th nationally in that category, thriving off of the Big Ten's leading passing attack ( 307.7 yds/game, 13th nationally).  Last week, though, the 'Cats relied heavily upon Tyrell Sutton - who looks to have fully recovered from his ankle injury earlier in the year as he carried the ball 33 times for 141 yards and a TD on the ground while also contributing 72 receiving yards.  The Illinois defense is 7th in the conference in total defense (42nd nationally), while ending up at 4th in the conference in scoring defense (good for 21st nationally) giving up only 19.27 pts/game.

One one side, Northwestern has a 4 game winning streak over Illinois, but this year's Illini team bears almost no resemblance to the team that was a Big Ten basement dweller for the better part of this decade, as they have already reached 8 wins on the year.  Meanwhile, NU may be the underdog in this game, but being a rivalry game and the fact that the 'Cats have had a lead or a very good chance of taking the winning score during the 4th quarter in 4 of its 5 losses, this should be an entertaining and closely fought battle.  And with so much at stake for both sides, each team will definitely be bringing their "A" games.

Line: Illinois by 13.5.

Who Should Win: Illinois should win - if not just for the fact that they beat then #1 OSU last week and controlled the game much of the way with their patient and strong running attack.  NU's defense has had well-documented issues with slowing down an option attack (at least over the past few years), and if "Juice" can pass as effectively as he did against Ohio State, the 'Cats will be in for a world of trouble.  Northwestern's offense has been shooting itself in the foot way too many times, and if they continue to do so ( e.g. 3 red zone trips with 0 points against Indiana) they won't stand much of a chance against Illinois.

Upset Factor: Northwestern has beaten Illinois 4 straight times (2 of them in Champaign by an average margin of victory of 17 points), and has shown through this season that it can play with almost anyone (and win, as long as there isn't a 4th quarter meltdown - which was hopefully overcome last week with NU's come from behind 4th quarter win over Indiana).  NU's offense can move the ball and should be able to do so against Illinois - the key will be limiting mistakes and scoring when the opportunity is there.  There is no way NU will completely shut down Illinois' rushing game, but if they can contain it and force some Illinois mistakes while keeping them out of the end zone relatively often, the 'Cats will have a prime chance for a win.  This game will be much closer than most people think (given the high expectations following Illinois' win last week).

What to Look For:

Northwestern Offense/Illinois Defense: NU can move the ball, which it has shown time and time again this year against almost every opponent.  Its problem is finding the end zone - for instance, against Indiana, NU came away empty on 3 red zone trips.  NU is 1st in the conference in total offense but 9th in scoring offense.  The key will be holding onto the football - and the most effective way of doing that will be running (Sutton!).  Last week we saw it work very well, especially on NU's final drive where it controlled the ball all the way down the field on its way to the winning score.  NU also converted 12 of 17 third downs on the day, thanks to many manageable 3rd down situations thanks to moving the ball on the ground on first and/or second downs (in fact, NU is now ranked 16th nationally converting 47.2% of its third downs).  Regarding turnovers, NU has only won one game this year where it has more turnovers than its opponent - last week against Indiana (3 turnovers lost, 2 gained).  Every game that NU has either tied or led the turnover battle, the 'Cats have won.  The final important point will be getting an early lead - as we saw against OSU, Illinois has the ability to get up and then milk the clock with its consistent running game.  If NU can force Illinois into a position where it must try and move the ball more quickly, it will be advantageous for the 'Cats.

Northwestern Defense/Illinois Offense: Northwestern has to find a way to slow down/contain the Williams/Mendenhall rushing attack.  It is a tough task - and OSU proved that one of the nation's top defenses couldn't manage to do it.  They are both quick and the NU defense hasn't been particularly effective against the run over the past few years, including this season.  BUT, Northwestern has shown that it can step it up when it matters - they contained Hart when they played Michigan, and they forced Iowa to throw the ball as they held the Hawkeyes' two top RBs to less than 90 yards on the day.  The best thing that Northwestern can do is to contain the Illinois rushing game and put them in a position to throw the ball - by putting them in 3rd and long situations and, hopefully with the help of the offense, getting an early lead and forcing the Illini to make up some ground more quickly than they would like.

NU was effective in containing Indiana's wily QB Lewis last week (held to under 40 yards rushing on the day) thanks to getting pressure up front (with a lot of 5/6 DB schemes and sending at least one "roverback" on a blitz while also generating pressure up front with the DL) and keeping an LB at home to stay in front of Lewis (QB spy).  Why was Illinois so effective running against OSU?  Well, OSU fell for a lot of the fake handoffs and worked hard to try and get to the runner as quick as possible and to cut off the outside run.  What that did is left the middle of the field pretty much open - especially on the final drive.  Also, what I believe you saw was a defense that was trying to get the "big play" by getting into the backfield quickly and getting out of the framework of the defense, therefore leaving running lanes open.  For NU to be successful, it must create pressure up front (hopefully getting some more sacks/TFLs), and make sure the LBs "stay home" in order to close off any large running games and not to overpursue.  Look for some of the younger, quicker LBs to see playing time as well as the 5/6 defensive back sets in order to help get speed onto the field and help cut off the outside run opportunities.

If the Wildcats can force Illinois to do things they don't like to do (pass a lot) and NU can scrape together some turnovers, they will have a good shot at the game.  If NU gets behind early and is being pushed around by Illinois' offense, a win will become far more difficult to come by for NU.

Special Teams: Northwestern must correct whatever went wrong on last week's kickoff TD return that was allowed - the first kick/punt return for a TD allowed under Fitz (that wasn't blocked).  The field position will matter a lot more to NU as it tries to keep Illinois out of scoring range, since the NU offense can move the ball pretty well on almost any team (at least to reach the red zone).  One interesting statistic is that NU is 5th in the conference in net punting as Illinois is dead last 11th.  Northwestern has had a lot of success recently with its punt formation and line drive rugby style punts that are difficult to return/defend against.  Also, in a game that should be relatively close, field goals will make a difference - and NU's Villarreal must get over the hump because Illinois has the advantage with their FG kicker Reda who's hit 13/14 FGs this year (compared to Villarreal's 12/18, which isn't too bad for NU historically).


- Illinois' Offensive Line: The Illini OL has performed admirably this year, not only blocking for the conference's top rushing game, but also allowing the fewest sacks in the Big Ten (only 1/game on average).  This points even more to NU having to be physical up front in order to be effective in this game.
- NU OL: Don't forget about NU's offensive line, though, which held the nation's then 4th ranked sacking team to ZERO sacks on the day with CJ facing very little pressure all day long.  This trend must continue as the NU offense still relies upon an effective passing game.  And we've all seen the results when pressure is on CJ: sacks, INTs, and fumbles.
- Illinois' Rushing Defense: NU may have a tough time running the ball against the conference's 3rd ranked run defense, specifically one guy in the middle: LB J Leman, who is tied for 21st nationally in tackles.  Illinois allows 118.6 yds/game on the ground while NU has only rushed for 124.4 yds/game on the ground this year.  Therefore, it would definitely point to NU relying mostly on its passing attack: don't expect to see NU running much more than passing (which is what ended up happening last week for the first time this season).
- Illinois Scoring: Illinois has scored more than 40 points on 2 occasions this year (against Syracuse and Minnesota), the same number of times as NU (against Michigan St. and Minnesota).  The Illini have been held without a touchdown once this year, scoring only 6 points on 2 FGs against Iowa in a loss.
- Shutouts: Both NU and Illinois shut out their I-AA/FCS competition this year, NU beating Northeastern 27-0 and Illinois beating Western Illinois 21-0.  That was the only shutout of the year for both teams.
- Penalties: Don't look for many flags on Saturday as both teams play disciplined football: NU is 5th nationally with only 4.55 penalties/game (for 44 yds/game), while Illinois is 11th nationally with 4.91 penalties/game ( 48.6 yds/game).
- Turnover Margin: The way the ball falls makes a huge difference for the results of the season: NU is 10th in the conference (109th nationally) with a turnover margin of -0.82/game.  Illinois is 5th in the conference and 55th nationally at +0.09/game.  Turnovers will be a big deciding factor in the game on Saturday.
- Records Watch: CJ Bacher is 276 yards and 4 TDs away from tying Basanez's single game marks in those categories (both set in 2005) and is also within reach of the single game completions mark.  Both he and Sutton continue their climb up the NU record books.

Injury Report:

NU: Conteh (RB) is expected to play Saturday after missing the last 2 games.  Brewer (WR), Smith (S), Hamlett (DB), plus others are still out for the rest of the year.
Illinois : Benn (WR) and Davis (DB) both suffered concussions last week but will be back in on Saturday.  Dufrene (RB) played last week with a dislocated finger, and RBs Pollard and Weil are both questionable with knee injuries.

Prediction: Northwestern 24 - Illinois 28.

Unlike last week's prediction, I am hoping more than anything that Northwestern goes out there and proves me wrong and grabs the upset victory that will hopefully propel them to a bowl game.  It is a tall order, especially given Illinois' success running the ball and playing tough defense - and NU has been playing too inconsistently (even in last week's win over Indiana) to justify picking them right now.  I do fully expect a tough, hard-fought, close game that is characteristic of a rivalry trophy game.  I implore the 'Cats to give it their all and to fight to keep the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk and go for the win in its final game of the regular season - leave everything on the field and let the whole bowl thing figure itself out sometime later.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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