Post-Game Analysis: Illinois
by Jonathan Hodges


On a sunny day in Champaign, Northwestern (6-6, 3-5) played what will most likely prove to be its final game of the 2007 season as it dropped a 41-22 decision to Illinois (9-3, 6-2) who appears to be headed to a New Years bowl game.  Illinois completely dominated the game from the onset, grabbing an INT from Northwestern early and driving down the field for a TD.   With time winding down in the second quarter, Illinois had already built up a 21-0 lead before Northwestern would get on the scoreboard with a 1 yard Sutton TD run.

The story of the game was the fact that Northwestern couldn't contain Illinois' rushing attack from the get go as the Illini had 321 rushing yards (136 and 2 TDs for Juice and 124 and 2 TDs for Mendenhall), meaning that Illinois could control the tempo of the game and go on long, time consuming drives that not only ate up clock but also put Illinois up big in the first half.  The halftime score was 28-7 in favor of Illinois, but the fact is that the Illini may have well have won the game on their opening drive.

Northwestern's defense was just being flat out-played throughout the game.  There were a couple of decent plays, but they were scattered amongst a porous showing as NU looked even more baffled than OSU's defense last week as they watched the Illinois rushers run right by them numerous times.  The fact is that Illinois did exactly what they needed to win the game and never really let go of their grip.

Offensively, the 'Cats tried to do what they could, but Illinois took them out of an effective game plan early by grabbing an early lead and forcing NU to basically throw almost every down in order to play catch-up.  Bacher did have a decent day, passing for 310 yards, 2 TDs, and 2 INTs (going 29 of 49 passing), which gave him Northwestern's single season passing yards and completions record (both previously held by Basanez in his 2005 campaign).  Sutton also had a solid day, when he was given the ball, rushing for 71 yards on 13 carries ( 5.5 ypc) and receiving 7 catches for 68 yards as well.  Eric Peterman racked up 120 yards on 10 catches.  Finally, the OL held up relatively well - although they allowed 2 sacks later in the game.  Despite all of this, NU never really had a chance because any time NU would score, Illinois would efficiently march right down the field to answer.

NU got out-played by a team with a superior rushing attack that dominated the line of scrimmage almost all day.  And with a few long Juice passes sprinkled in, the Illini had the 'Cats on their heels all day defensively, with the offense taken out of any game plan as they tried to force things to happen to try and catch-up.  In the end, Illinois solidly defeated NU and ended up with the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk for the first time since their 2002 win in Evanston - and they have a big bowl game to look forward to.  Finally, Northwestern will, in all likelihood, end up without a bowl bid, and although the 'Cats finished the season 6-6, there is always that bitter taste of what could have been.

Look out for my season wrap-up which will post shortly.

Player of the Game: Illinois QB Juice Williams (23 carries for 136 yds, 2 TDs; 15-23 passing, 220 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT): He ran the option attack flawlessly against NU's defense, making them look bewildered all day.  Even when it looked like NU's DL had a shot at a TFL/sack, he would sprint away and somehow manage to pick up that first down.  And when the NU defense bit on the run he would pull it back and find an open receiver downfield.  He's obviously improving in all aspects of the game and will be very dangerous down the road.

NU Honorable Mentions:
- RB Tyrell Sutton: He did all that he could with 13 carries for 71 yds (5.5 ypc) and 7 receptions for 68 yards, but the fact is that NU couldn't afford to go with the ground game in such a deep hole.  If NU had managed to stay in the game while sticking to the run, things could have been much different.
- NU Offensive Line: They gave up 2 sacks late, but generally they did a nice job holding back the Illinois pass rush on a day when Illinois knew exactly what NU was going to do (pass) and exactly what they needed to do to stop it (rush the passer).  It's tough having to pass block play in and play out, and they at least gave NU a shot.
- QB CJ Bacher: 29-49, 310 yds, 2 TD, 2 INT; he did what he could, although the fact is that he couldn't do it all by himself (the defense sure didn't help him out).  His biggest mistakes of the day were his INTs, both drive-killers when NU needed points - one was on a dump pass over the middle while under pressure, unfortunately right into the hands of an awaiting Illini defender - and the other was a long pass on the very first drive of the day that was nowhere near the receiver - either the receiver ran the wrong way (out instead of in) or CJ just completely missed the route.  In any case, that first INT was what took NU out of the game - with Illinois marching down the field for a TD directly following that.
- P Stefan Demos: Again did an amazing job on punts, with a staggering 49.0 yard average on 5 punts - 3 of them inside the 20.  Illinois had only 1 punt return yard on the day.  Demos mixed in one "normal" style punt with the rest being of the rugby line-drive style that were once again executed very well.  While it's never good to see the punter have one of the best games for your team, at least he made Illinois trek the entire field to get a score.

What to Work on:
With no games remaining in 2007 (most likely) NU now points itself towards the 2008 season.  Obviously, NU has a lot of deficiencies on defense that will need to be addressed - starting with the defensive coaching staff.  On offense, NU returns a lot of key weapons, but has to replace 3 big guys on the OL and will have only two experienced starters on the line next year (although there are a couple other young guys with some playing time from this year).  From this game, NU must be more physical and be able to contain the option on defense.  On offense, NU must have a more effective play call mix, although that is tough to do when you're in a big hole early.

Random Observations:
- Penalties: This is another tell-tale sign of NU having troubles, the 'Cats finished the day with 9 penalties for 79 yards, which is uncharacteristically above the season average for NU (who came into the game one of the top 5 teams in the nation with fewest penalties and averaging under 50 yards penalized per game).  NU was getting out of their game plan and was paying for it as they played undisciplined football.  Meanwhile, Illinois stuck to their trend with only 4 penalties for 35 yards on the day.
- Turnover Margin: NU lost the first game of the year in which it was at least even in turnover margin, as the final margin was 2-2.  The fact is, though, Illinois controlled the tempo of the game throughout and never really lost much momentum.
- 3rd Down Conversions: NU went 2-10 on third down conversions, after converting 47.2% of those 3rd downs prior to this game; the 'Cats also went 0-2 on fourth downs.  Meanwhile, Illinois went 8 of 14 on third downs as they showed that they can pick them up when needed in order to continue their drive.
- Special Teams: NU basically dominated special teams play on Saturday, averaging 24.6 yds/kickoff return while holding Illinois to only 5.3 yds/kickoff return.  NU's punts average 49.0 yds with 3 inside the 20 (and one on the 20) and allowed only 1 punt return yard.  Meanwhile, Illinois averaged 42 yds/punt and allowed 16 punt return yards (one of 14 yds) and only got inside the 20 once.
- Red Zone Chances: The offense did what it needed to once inside the red zone, going 3-3 with 3 TDs once inside the 20 (Illinois went 5 of 6 - its one failure was an INT late in the first half, while it also settled for a FG once).  Unfortunately, the NU offense didn't make it into the red zone enough to keep up with Illinois.

Final Thought:
Illinois showed that it deserved the win and deserves a good bowl game following a 9 win season.  Meanwhile, Northwestern must regroup going into 2008 with a solid core of players and a good chance at making some noise next year.  There is a lot to think about in the off season - particularly what could have been (the Duke game, and 3 games with blown 4th quarter leads), but it's all about responding and we'll see how the 'Cats can bounce back in 2008.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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