Game Preview


Illinois at NU
Ryan Field
Saturday, Nov. 22.  2:30 p.m. CST
TV: Big Ten Network
WGN radio internet coverage.


Northwestern (8-3, 4-3) will head into Saturday's rivalry matchup with Illinois (5-6, 3-4) looking to secure a higher bowl position as the Illini will seek to become bowl eligible, needing a win to reach the .500 mark for the season.  And, of course, the winner of the game will take home the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk that goes to the winner of this tightly-contested series (Illinois leads 52-44-5 all-time), which the Illini took back from NU last season after a 4 year stay in Evanston.  The game figures to be a tough battle between a team that has already equaled the most wins it has had this decade and a team fighting for its collective bowl life, and that is in addition to the rivalry aspect of this matchup.

The 'Cats will again be seeking to plug holes left due to injuries, with another starter (DT Bryant) going down with a knee injury against Michigan.  NU will plug in Adam Hahn, who has started at that position many times in the past; the 'Cats have already found a way to go without their original starting QB (Bacher), RB (Sutton), backup RB (Conteh), CB (Vaughn), RT (Mattes), MLB (Arrington), and backup DE (Browne) for at least 2 games each this year, showing the depth and young talent available on this squad (as well as the resourcefulness of the coaching staff).  Fortunately, the Wildcats saw Bacher return against Michigan and have quite a good game passing, especially in the second half (which was even better considering the conditions on the field), as he threw for 198 yards and 2 TDs on the day.  Although fleet-footed backup QB Kafka went out with a concussion, he will be available against Illinois and will likely be played as another running threat out of the backfield; also don't be surprised to see third-string QB Persa inserted as he also poses a running threat and actually practiced at RB during spring practice.  Northwestern's OL will have a chore going up against Illinois' strong defensive front who have put up big sack and TFL numbers on the year, breaking into the top 15 nationally in both categories; the OL already knows it must improve its run blocking after allowing the 'Cats to pick up a measly 1.6 yards/carry against the Wolverines last week.

On the flipside, the Northwestern defense will have its hands full with the Illinois offensive weapons: first and foremost Juice Williams, who almost single-handedly won last year's contest, throwing for 220 yards and a TD while running for 136 yards and 2 more scores.  Williams will be flanked by multiple RBs, all of whom have proven to be dangerous runners, including Dufrene (5.9 yards/carry), Ford (7 TDs), and even WR Benn (21 carries for 93 yards and 2 TDs) who lines up in the backfield every so often.  As Northwestern learned last year, that spread option offense is dangerous and can strike quickly; Williams has vastly improved his passing game this season which makes them even more dangerous: this season he has over 2,900 yards passing, 22 TDs and 15 INTs for a 142.1 QB rating.  The Illini are averaging over 30 points/game and have found ways to light up the scoreboard (i.e. a 45-20 win in Ann Arbor and a 55-13 win over Indiana in Champaign).  Their achilles heel, though, has been turnovers: the Illini's turnover margin on the season is -0.45, which is the primary reason that they have not won consecutive games over I-A/FBS opponents and are currently sitting at 5-6 and are in a must-win situation to gain bowl eligibility for the second consecutive season.

With the Wildcat defense leading the way and allowing just over 20 points/game while the Illinois offense has been putting up impressive numbers throughout the year the question is which will give way?  And while the NU offense is missing some key components, they have found a way to put up just enough points to squeak out 8 wins and CJ will be looking to cap off his career with an impressive home finale - and don't count out Kafka and/or Persa coming in to shake things up a little on offense.  Finally, the Illinois defense has been vulnerable to scoring at times (they are yielding 26.5 points/game on the year) but still present some challenges, especially up front.

In a rivalry game, anything can happen, but the one thing you can expect to see is a lot of emotion and a hard-fought battle.  This one looks to be a good game with added pressure on Illinois to gain bowl eligibility and Northwestern to move up the bowl ladder and possibly lock its rival out of the postseason.  It will also be an emotional day for the NU senior class who will play their final home game and look back on their careers which began during a successful 2004-2005 run, included the passing of their head coach, Randy Walker, and saw a rise back to success under the young Coach Fitzgerald.

Illinois by 2.5

Who Should Win: Toss-up.  Yes, Northwestern has experienced injuries across the board and hasn't really gotten the offense moving the ball the way many expected it to with experienced seniors at the skill positions, but NU has found a way to win games and has done so with defense on multiple occasions.  And while Illinois has put up some impressive offensive numbers this season, they have found a way to shoot themselves in the foot more than once - leading to the fact that they haven't posted consecutive wins over I-A/FBS opponents this year and are sitting at a disappointing 5-6 after playing in the Rose Bowl after last season.  Add to that the fact that this is a rivalry game and it should be an evenly-matched fight on Saturday afternoon.

Upset Factor:  Given that neither team is a clear front-runner in this matchup, there isn't really an upset factor, but I'll put the turnover margin out there as the biggest determining factor in this game.  Northwestern has 6 games this season in which it has a 0 or greater turnover margin and has won all of them, while going 2-3 when having a negative turnover margin (those 3 losses were all to Big Ten opponents with a combined net turnovers of -11; note that NU didn't gain a turnover in any of those 3 losses).  Illinois, meanwhile, has gone 4-1 in games in which it has a 0 or greater turnover margin (3-0 when positive), but, much like NU, hasn't faired well when giving up the ball, going 1-5 in negative turnover margin games (4 of those losses were to Big Ten opponents and the only win was against I-AA/FCS Eastern Illinois).  It is very likely that turnovers will determine the outcome of this game.

What to Look For:

Northwestern Offense/Illinois Defense: After sitting for 2 weeks with a hamstring injury, CJ Bacher returned to action as NU's starting QB against Michigan, shook off the rust, and put NU over the top in Ann Arbor with his arm, leading 2 TD-scoring drives to start the 3rd quarter of that game.  Earlier, Mike Kafka came in to mix things up on a few snaps with his legs (he had 3 rushes for 20 yards) but was shaken up with a concussion and sat out the remainder of the game, leaving CJ alone behind center.  Bacher still appeared to be hampered a bit with his injury as he had 9 rushes for -15 yards (22 of those lost yards came on 3 sacks, so discounting those CJ ran 6 times for 7 yards), and the 'Cats will obviously benefit by having Kafka back on the field, which they will fortunately get against Illinois.  Overall, Northwestern's rushing game has taken a nosedive since Sutton and Conteh's injuries (outside of Kafka's 320 yards over 3 games); Simmons has rushed 40 times for 109 yards and 1 TD over the past 2 weeks while Conteh ran 12 times for 12 yards against Minnesota.  Adding up the total production from the running backs over the past 3 weeks yields 48 carries for 102 yards and 1 TD (2.1 yards/carry), which is nowhere close to Sutton's production through the first the first 7 or so games of the year (776 yards on 155 carries, 5.0 yards/carry, and 6 TDs).  The Wildcats must do something to invigorate the rushing attack, and that will likely mean seeing Kafka and/or Persa on the field running with the ball; the biggest question will be if Illinois can stop it when they see what is coming (NU hasn't put multiple QBs on the field at the same time so far this year).  In terms of the passing game, the 'Cats must continue to look deep, like CJ did against Michigan, as NU averaged a respectable 6.8 yards/pass attempt and got a 53 yard TD reception from Peterman - sticking exclusively to the short passing game (like against OSU) just doesn't work against speedy Big Ten defenses.  The offensive line will, again, have its hands full with an Illinois squad that has 32 sacks on the year (2.9/game, 7th in the nation) and makes things happen in the backfield (7.4 TFLs/game, 14th nationally).  Illinois is led up front by DE Walker (6 sacks), DE Davis (3.5 sacks), and DT Lindquist (4 sacks) while blitzing LBs have taken care of business; Miller has 6 sacks, and Wilson has 3.  As a whole, the defense has performed well and is led by senior Brit Miller, who has a team-leading 124 tackles, including 15.5 for a loss.  On the outside, the Illini have junior Vontae Davis, a next-level talent, who has racked up 1 INT, 8 PBUs, and 3 forced fumbles along with his 69 tackles.  As the statistics show, Illinois' D takes care of business up front by getting pressure in the backfield and then relies on hard hitting to generate plays - Illinois has picked up 14 fumbles on the year.  Their weakness, though, appears to be in the passing game where they have only intercepted 5 balls on the season and rank 79th in pass efficiency defense and are giving up 194.5 yards/game through the air, 49th in the country.  And as some teams have shown against Illinois (Missouri and Penn State, in particular), you can score against ths unit.  The Wildcats must get solid protection up front and it will be up to CJ Bacher to find the open guy downfield and make plays, much like he did in the 2nd half against Michigan.  A solid running effort with Simmons, Kafka and/or Persa would also help keep the D honest becuase otherwise the Illinois DL will pin their ears back and rush CJ every play without checking the run.  And, of course, NU must protect the football and avoid turnovers, which have cost the 'Cats this year.

Northwestern Offensive Stats:  Total offense (358.6 yards/game, 64th), scoring offense (24.3 points/game, 70th), rushing offense (151.1 yards/game, 59th), passing offense (207.6 yards/game, 63rd), sacks allowed (1.6/game, 45th).
Illinois Defensive Stats: Total defense (351.4 yards/game, 59th), scoring defense (26.6 points/game, 72nd), rushing defense (156.9 yards/game, 78th), passing defense (194.5 yards/game, 49th), sacks (2.9/game, 7th).

Northwestern Defense/Illinois Offense: Without a doubt, Illinois has playmakers on offense, and it all starts with Juice at QB, who, as mentioned, is having quite a year both running and passing.  His passing skills have increased by leaps and bounds as his completions, yards, completion percentage, yards/attempt, and TDs have increased in each of his 3 collegiate seasons at the helm.  And he still has the ability to do things with his feet, and he has averaged 13.6 rushing attempts/game, so the Wildcat defense will have their work cut out for them in terms of both keeping tabs on him and preventing the big passing play.  In terms of passing, Williams has plenty of big targets, most notably his favorite receiver, Benn, who has caught 63 balls for 1,012 yards on the season.  Other big targets are Jeff Cumberland, who has the size to get a mismatch on anyone in the secondary, Judson, and TE Hoomanawanui (another big guy).  And providing a second rushing threat will be Dufrene or Ford, who have split carries not taken by Juice and have combined for over 900 rushing yards on the year.  Dufrene has done a respectable job replacing Mendenhall, who left early for the NFL after last year, averaging 5.9 yards/carry.  As noted earlier, though, this unit has had issues with turnovers, losing 9 fumbles and throwing 15 interceptions on the season, which have resulted in multiple losses this year.  While Juice's passing has improved, his is still turnover prone, and the Wildcat defense must take advantage.  First off, it will be up to Mims, Gill, Hahn, and Wootton (who have now played together quite a bit) to get pressure up front by helping to contain the running game and get the pressure on Juice, whether he is running or passing.  Look for NU to come out with different defensive schemes to get more speed up front as well; nickel sets with 3 down linemen allow Phillips to take up a "rover" LB type role where he can get to the ball easier than in his safety position, particularly on runs (Phillips leads NU with 92 tackles).  The key up front will be the play of DEs Mims and Wootton as they contain the outside running lanes and try to get some pass rush on.  In the secondary, the 'Cats showed nice prowess in last week's win over Michigan, batting away many balls and containing Michigan to under 100 passing yards.  Coverage will be more difficult against Illinois, who sports the aforementioned big targets whose reach will be above any of NU DBs.  Mabin, McManis, Smith, and Peters will have their work cut out for them and must excecute great coverage against these receivers while taking advantage of any errant throw (yes, they will come) and grabbing some interceptions.  The Wildcat D has been solid for much of the year and this will be a big test against an offense that ranks in the top 20 nationally in yards/game.

Northwestern Defensive Stats:  Total defense (343.7 yards/game, 51st), scoring defense (20.2 points/game, 31st), rushing defense (128.1 yards/game, 44th), passing defense (215.6 yards/game, 74th), sacks (2.6/game, 27th).
Illinois Offensive Stats: Total offense (448.3 yards/game, 16th), scoring offense (30.4 points/game, 37th), rushing offense (173.7 yards/game, 36th), passing offense (274.6 yards/game, 16th), sacks allowed (1.8/game, 62nd).

Special Teams: These teams look very similar when comparing special teams units: both have reliable kickers (Eller for Illinois and Villarreal for NU) and both haven't done much of anything on punt returns.  The most glaring differences are punting (NU averages 2.9 more yards per punt in net punting), kickoff returns (Illinois is 2.3 yards/kick return better) and kickof return average defense (NU is 4.4 yards/kick return better).  With Illinois' offensive abilities, the 'Cats' offense will need all the help that they can get, so NU must try to get something going in the return game to shorten the field and gain some valuable position.  Meanwhile, NU will be best served keeping Illinois deep on its kicks and punts to force Juice to throw the ball more often and, hopefully, to make more mistakes (i.e. more chances at NU interceptions).  The Wildcats have shown solid special teams play so far this year, particularly on coverage teams, and that must continue as Illinois puts their dangerous WR Benn back to return kicks and punts (following their strategy of getting the ball into his hands as much as possible).  In a close game, which this is expected to be, special teams can make a big difference, particularly when one mistake can mean a big swing in field position and/or score, so like the turnover battle - whoever gains a big play here could be destined for victory.

Northwestern Stats: XPs (28/30, 93%), FGs (17/21, 81%), punt return average (6.7 yards/return, 91st), kickoff return average (19.5 yards/return, 99th), net punting (34.9 yards/punt, 66th), kickoff return average defense (19.5 yards/return, 32nd).
Illinois Stats: XPs (38/39, 97%), FGs (14/19, 74%), punt return average (7.1 yards/return, 84th), kickoff return average (21.8 yards/return, 56th), net punting (32.0 yards/punt, 104th), kickoff return average defense (23.9 yards/return, 101st).

- Bowl Positioning:  It's pretty easy: a win would guarantee the 'Cats a spot in at least the Champs Sports Bowl no matter what else happens.  The Alamo Bowl would be a likely destination with the Outback Bowl still within reach.  A loss would leave a lot up to everyone else (OSU vs. Michigan, PSU vs. MSU, Oregon State vs. Arizona and Oregon, USC vs. ND and UCLA, Minnesota vs. Iowa, and the opinions of various bowl committees), so the best thing that the 'Cats can do for upward bowl mobility is to win.  Also, Illinois' only shot at a bowl berth would be a win, so NU can quash their chances with a victory.
- 3rd Down Conversions:  Northwestern's success at 3rd down conversions continues as they rank 23rd in the nation with a 45.7% conversion rate and the defense has also continued its level of play, allowing opponents a 33.9% conversion percentage, good for 29th nationally.  On the other side of the field, Illinois is converting at a respectable 42.2% (42nd nationally) and allowing opponents a 36.3% conversion rate (48th in the nation).  This also goes to show the even matchup of this football game.
- Scoring by Quarters:  Illinois has outscored opponents in every quarter but the fourth, where they trail 104-106; the 4th quarter is the only period in which they have scored more than 100 points and also the only in which they have allowed more than 100 points (they have only allowed 37 in the 3rd quarter).  Northwestern, meanwhile, has outscored opponents in all but the first quarter and have held opponents to only 7.3 points/game in the second half, including 5 second half shutouts - 3 of them coming in Big Ten play (Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota, Southern Illinois and Ohio).
- Weather: While it will be cold (in the 30s) for the game, the forecast currently has no precipitation in the mix, which is a welcomed change after last week's conditions in Ann Arbor.  Expect great "Big Ten" weather for the game.
- Attendance:  Despite a great season for the 'Cats (8 wins so far), a rivalry game against in-state Illinois (who have a shot at bowl eligibility and are coming off of a Rose Bowl trip last season), a favorable 2:30PM start time, and lots of promotion from the NU athletic department, it appears as though there will be plenty of seats left for the game.  It's unfortunate because if Northwestern found a way to fill the stadium it would likely have a better shot at moving up the bowl ladder than just winning the game alone.
- NU 2-deep notes: There was little change in the 2-deep for NU this week, although with Bryant's injury, Hahn will step back in as the starting DT (a position he has held in the past).  Marshall Thomas will likely get more playing time there or at DE (where he was listed as a backup following Browne's injury a few weeks ago).  DiNardo is the backup at the other DT spot.  Note that the 'Cats have been playing more and more nickel defense with 3 down linemen, helping out with that DL rotation to keep guys fresh - in that set Phillips has been in more of a "roverback" LB type of role rather than safety, where Smith and Peters have been playing in more of a traditional role.

Injury Report:

Northwestern: SB Dunsmore (out for season, knee), CB Vaughn (out for season, shoulder), LB Rejae Johnson (out for season, shoulder), LB Arrington (out for season, knee), RB Sutton (out for regular season, wrist), DE Browne (out for regular season, knee), RB Conteh (out for season, knee), DT Bryant (out for season, knee), OL Grant (questionable, ankle).

Illinois: DT Williams (out for season, knee), RB LeShoure (questionable, broken jaw), OL Palmer (questionable, foot), DB Edwards (questionable, shoulder), FB Smith (questionable, disciplinary), DT Brent (questionable, knee), QB/WR McGee (questionable, turf toe).

Northwestern once again suffered a season-ending knee injury (for the third consecutive week) as DT Corbin Bryant went out of the Michigan game with a knee injury.  While that is a loss in the middle, DT Hahn will step into a spot where he's made numerous starts, while Thomas will likely see more playing time in the middle as a result.  On the other side of the ball, QB Mike Kafka sustained a concussion while being tackled against Michigan and it has been confirmed that he is OK and will be available against Illinois.  Fortunately, Bacher looked healthy against Michigan and should continue to provide a significant passing threat at QB; he has been removed from the injury list.

Outside of the loss of DT Williams before the season, Illinois has escaped major injuries; their tumultuous season has been more of a result of turnovers and inconsistent play.  While the DL seemed to take a hit with the loss of DT Williams, they have responded in a big way, ranking in the top 15 nationally in sacks and TFLs, and despite having Brent questionable with a knee injury, they will still be formidable.  While there are a few other injuries, i.e. Edwards, who missed the OSU game, none are to star players who figure to have the biggest impact on the game.  The question is if the starters on the field can get things together, unlike NU who is trying to fll in multiple holes left by injured starters.

Prediction: Northwestern 29 - Illinois 28

This should be a hard-hitting, close game, which one would expect from the rivalry aspect of this matchup alone, and I am going to step away from my preseason prognostication for this game and predict a Wildcat victory.  Expect NU to be fired up for this game and to be focused on the task at hand and not which city they'll be playing in come late December or early January.  The key to the game will be turnover margin, and I expect NU to play it safe offensively, mixing some Kafka and/or Persa running in with CJ throws to move the ball while hopefully avoiding costly interceptions - on D, Juice will feel the pressure at some point and make a costly mistake.  Although Illinois will score, the NU D will take advantage of that mistake and take the turnover (hopefully multiple times), allowing NU to rack up its 9th win of the year thanks to a close, hard-fought battle.

I will also officially put the lid on any bowl talk until after this game.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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