Game Preview


Southern Illinois at NU
Ryan Field
Saturday, Sept. 13.  11:00 am CDT
TV: Big Ten Network
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Northwestern vs. SIU
by Jonathan Hodges

After a hard-fought road victory, Northwestern (2-0, 0-0) heads back home to Evanston on Saturday to face an in-state I-AA/FCS opponent, Southern Illinois (1-0), who defeated fellow I-AA/FCS school Hampton last week.  The Salukis have had a good amount of recent success at the FCS level, going to the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, recently having won the Missouri Valley Football Conference title in 2004 and 2005 (formerly the Gateway Conference), and being ranked in either the I-AA/FCS coaches or media poll for 69 consecutive weeks (the Salukis are currently ranked 11th in the media and 13th in the coaches poll at the FCS level).  Also noteable, Southern Illinois carries into the game a 2 game winning streak against I-A/FBS opponents, including a 2006 win over Big Ten opponent Indiana and a 2007 win over Northern Illinois (who later hired away SIU's head coach, Jerry Kill).

Despite a very successful recent history for SIU, the Wildcats catch them in a bit of transition as they had to replace head coach Kill and a number of starters, particularly in key offensive skill positions from last year's team that went into the playoffs.  That includes a freshman starting at left tackle, a sophomore starting at QB, and some younger receivers; on defense the starting lineup includes 2 sophomores and 7 juniors.  But don't count them out too far as their opening week performance yielded two conference players of the week honors: to RB Warner (who had 151 yards and 2 TDs including a kickoff return TD) and S McElroy (who was all over the field and ended up with 2 INTs, a fumble recovery, and 5 tackles).  Also, new head coach Dale Lennon hails from North Dakota where as head coach he led them to sustained success since 1999, including an NCAA title in 2001.

For the Salukis, this game constitutes a huge game, and there is no doubt that they will be fired up and ready to face the 'Cats in an attempt to run their winning streak over FBS opponents to three.  Expect a significant contingent of SIU alumni and fans on Saturday given the proximity to NU, despite a relatively small showing for their own home opener (10,051), so that should add more fuel to their fire.  Northwestern knows very well not to overlook FCS opponents (New Hampshire handily beat the 'Cats back in 2006 - and their win streak over FCS opponents now stands at 4 after taking down Army this season), and SIU has shown that it can play with teams at this level.

Northwestern, meanwhile, should definitely be looking at this game as an opportunity to get its offense in sync and humming - although the 'Cats are producing a respectable 27.0 ppg this year, they never really got the offense working how they want it to, particularly due to issues on 3rd down (NU is converting only 38% of its 3rd downs on the year).  Also, against Duke the running game was definitely not on track as NU failed to crack even 80 yards on the ground for the game; having an established rushing game will be a key component to keeping the offense marching down the field.  One fortunate thing is that the NU red zone efficiency has been stellar in 2008: NU is 7/7 in the red zone with 6 TDs, and this after a relatively poor showing last season when NU could march down the field as well as anyone but then saw many drives stall without a score.

On defense, the key this season has been preventing the big play.  The longest play from scrimmage yielded by Northwestern so far this season was a 31 yard pass to Williams against Duke.  NU has not allowed any long plays to go for touchdowns, and the secondary has not allowed any passing TDs so far.  In fact, NU is performing very well in a few key areas on defense, including opponents' 3rd down conversions (27%), red zone TDs allowed (3 in 7 trips), pass efficiency defense (73.76; average is set at 100), and, most importantly, scoring (15.0 ppg allowed).  They will be looking to build on their average of 2 sacks/game as well with another solid performance from the DL.  But, they will have a task ahead of them as they try to contain SIU's offense and try to prevent them from moving down the field with ease as Duke did multiple times last week.

Line: Off the board.

Who Should Win: Northwestern.  The Wildcats have more talent and experience and should be able to take over the game, especially in the second half, if they are playing well.  On offense, this is the perfect chance to get the ball moving down the field well, with a good mix of both pass and run plays.  SIU gave up a ton of passing yards in their opening game (403) and realistically won the game because they forced 5 turnovers on the day, so NU must take advantage of that opportunity.  This is also a chance for the OL to continue to build its confidcence not only be protecting CJ but also by paving the way for Sutton and Conteh - which was a big issue against Duke.  Meanwhile, the defense must continue to keep things in front of them by preventing the big plays; they have been very successful at forcing the opponent to move slowly down the field and then tighten things up in the red zone to prevent a lot of TDs.  The 'Cats' D should be able to win the battle at the line of scrimmage which would give NU a big advantage by slowing or stopping the running game and disrupting the passing game.

Upset Factor: Any NU fan knows to be wary of ANY opponent, and SIU will present some challenges for NU.  Their defense helped seal their week one win by taking the ball away a staggering 5 times (NU only has 2 takeaways on the year), and their offense has talent at the skill positions that has translated into points.  For the Salukis to stay in and possibly win the game they must force errors by NU (turnovers) and then take advantage of those errors by scoring TDs.  Expect them to move the ball against the NU defense and to put points on the board - and to be in the game during the first half.  While they would need a lot to go in their favor to pull off the upset, it's definitely possible.

What to Look For:

Northwestern Offense/Southern Illinois Defense: As stated earlier, the NU offense needs to show that it can get in sync and more the ball down the field.  During the first 2 games, NU hasn't been able to sustain many long drives - especially at Duke where the longest drive (in terms of time) was 3:04 while Duke had 5 drives longer than that time.  Not only will this help give the defense a breather, but it will truly help NU control the tempo of the game - which was a point of emphasis for OC McCall who wants to utilize the no huddle offense to accomplish this goal.  A successful running game is a key component, and although NU ran wild in game one, they were definitely not as good on the ground against Duke.  Against SIU, the OL must re-establish its run blocking abilities and Sutton and/or Conteh must break some significant runs to keep the defense honest.  The OL pass protection has been very solid thus far and that must continue because NU does not want a repeat of 4th quarter meltdowns last season that saw CJ being chased through the backfield.  Finally, the receivers must not drop the football.  During the Duke game there were a minimum of 6 drops - many of which would have translated to 3rd down conversions or given NU a good chance of sustaining drives.  While Bacher's accuracy wasn't superb, the drops by the receivers certainly didn't help matters.  On SIU's defense, look out for sophomore safety McElroy who had a huge game in week one (as mentioned earlier), CB Lindsey (who had an INT in week one), and LBs Cloud, Jordan, and Patton who combined for a number of takles in week one, including some TFLs.  The Salukis run a 3-4 defense, so expect more speed with the LBs spreading out to cover those short passing plays.

Northwestern Defense/Southern Illinois Offense: The NU defense has done an excellent job keeping the ball in front of them and preventing big plays, and they have done very well keeping the passing game from hurting them by not allowing any passing TDs and keeping opponents from converting 3rd downs.  Now, they must cut down on the sustained drives that they allow since better competition will present more of a challenge in the red zone to keep them out of the end zone.  NU's DL, in particular, must step up to get pressure up front not only by getting to the QB but also by taking up blocks and allowing the LBs to make tackles near the LOS.  Wootton, Browne, and Gill should be able to provide plenty of pressure on the QB (they have all contributed to sacks so far this year), and should also be helped by LB Davie coming off the end, which DC Hankwitz has shown he likes to do from time to time.  The LB trio of Arrington, Kwateng, and Davie are quick but must get to the point of attack quickly and make the tackle; there were definitely some missed tackles against Duke and some times when the LBs allowed Duke to take advantage of the middle of the field.  Finally, the NU secondary has performed admirably thus far, with McManis coming on strong, Smith providing valuable leadership for the entire defense, and newcomer Mabin securing his first start at CB.  Also, Phillips has shown improvement at the other S position and Arnold (who should return from a knee injury sustained against Syracuse) and Peters (who made some nice tackles against Duke) should also be pushing for PT at safety.  On SIU, their offense had a nice opening week as they feature senior RB Warner, sophomore QB Dieker, who had a very nice game, and a solid receiving corps who can make plays when called upon.  They know that generating a lot of offense will be the key to success so expect a sense of urgency when they have the ball as they attempt to get the ball in the end zone.

Special Teams: The Wildcats have had excellent execution on special teams, particularly on punts and kicks, where NU is allowing and average of 34.1 net yards punting and 18.2 yards per kick return, including 7 of 14 punts inside the 20 and 2 longer than 50 yards.  Credit the coverage teams for getting down the field quickly and making nice tackles or downing the ball when necessary to help give the opponent poor starting position.  This must continue, especially against a team that had a kick returner take one to the house (Warner), as sticking the opponent deep in their own territory has helped the NU defense immensely.  In terms of extra points and field goals, Villarreal is 7/7 on XPs and 1/1 on FGs for the year, and he must establish some consistent kicking early to maximize NU's scoring chances.  Kick returns have also been good for NU, and the Duke game featured the insertion of Mabin into the returner slot, and he picked up 2 returns for 44 yards, a pretty solid showing; Simmons also provides a returning threat there.  The only aspect of special teams that is still lacking is punt returns, where Smith and Peterman haven't made much noise, but expect them to eventually get a returnable punt where they can rack up some yards.  Northwestern must continue to execute on special teams and prevent the big play out of the opponent to help secure the win against SIU - who will be looking for the big play anywhere they can get it to try and pull the upset.

- As mentioned earlier, Mabin will move into the starting role at CB opposite McManis as he had a solid game against Duke.  Vaughn, the starter, was apparently slightly banged up but should continue to have significant playing time, especially with NU running nickel sets quite often on 3rd downs.
- Sutton is averaging 5.7 ypc on the ground and has been very effective in his career when given the ball more than 21 times per game on the ground.  He apparently suffered some cramping against Duke so look for him to bounce back in this game.
- Senior WR Ward is developing into a go-to guy for Bacher this year, as he leads the team with 8 receptions and 99 yards.  While he doesn't provide the biggest downfield threat, expect to see his name pop up on those shorter routes and look for solid contributions to help the offense move downfield.
- CJ has thorwn to 11 different receivers this year and has caught a ball himself (which tied for NU's third longest play from scrimmage so far this year at 25 yards).  The reception is his only catch of his collegiate career.
- Starting with this game, the rest of NU's season will be nationally televised either on the BTN or ABC/ESPN/ESPN2.
- The 'Cats should expect a bit of an attendance boost this Saturday as they face an in-state opponent, have a number of promotions going on, and will host High School Band Day featuring a lot of marching bands from the region.

Injury Report:

Northwestern: SB Dunsmore (out for season, knee), WR Yarbrough (questionable), LB McNaul (questionable, leg), DL Mafuli (questionable, knee), LB Jeske (questionable), WR Frymire (questionable).

Southern Illinois: RB Richard White (doubtful).

Despite NU shuttling players in and out of the game against Duke due to the hot and humid conditions, it doesn't appear that NU sustained any additional injuries of significance.  Vaughn was apparently limited with a minor ding, but apparently Mabin has earned the starting nod even with Justan healthy.  Hopefully NU will start to get some of the questionable guys back and available, particularly Yarbrough and Frymire who could contribute at the WR position.

Prediction: Northwestern 35 - Southern Illinois 13

I expect Northwestern to get the offense rolling with a good balance of running and passing, and I think Sutton has the potential for a big day if the OL can open some holes for him.  SIU will move the ball and should get some points, but expect the NU defense to do a good job holding them back.  Although the Salukis present a challenge, it is one that NU should be able to handle well and put themselves in a good position after the first quarter of the regular season.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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