Post-Game Analysis: Illinois
by Jonathan Hodges


Northwestern (9-3, 5-3) beat Illinois to take home the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk for the last time (Illinois and NU officials agreed to retire the trophy in an effort to remove Native American references from NCAA competition) and to propel the 'Cats to their highest win total since 1996, a feat only equaled 4 other times in Northwestern football history.  Illinois (5-7, 3-5), meanwhile, is now assured to stay home for the holidays as their offense fizzled at the hands of a strong NU defense, led by a strong performance from the defensive line, despite losing another key contributor due to injury last week.  The Wildcat offense then took care of business, with CJ Bacher tossing 2 TDs (to Lane and Peterman - who else) and Simmons adding another on the ground, while Villarreal went 2/2 on FGs to lead NU to a winning final score of 27-10 in Evanston

The 'Cats started strong, forcing a punt on Illinois' first possession, then reaching paydirt on the ensuing drive, then kept on going as the NU D blanked Illinois for the first half.  After yielding a TD on the Illini's opening possession of the second half, the D stiffened and allowed only a FG the rest of the way, also forcing a fumble that allowed NU to seal the game.  Overall, the 'Cats' D had 5 sacks and 9 total TFLs on the day, an interception, and a fumble recovery as they kept Illinois' vaunted offense at bay for much of the day.  Juice Williams was most dangerous on his feet, rushing for 94 yards on 25 carries (including the 5 sacks), and also added 212 yards on 20 for 36 passing with an INT and fumble - with most of those yards coming trying despeately to get Illinois on the scoreboard in the second half.

It was quite a complete game for NU, with the aforementioned success on defense, a solid day on offense (27 points, even with NU running the ball throughout the 4th quarter to run down the clock), and a pretty good game on special teams as well.  Although Villarreal missed an XP on NU's first TD (NU would later convert a 2-point conversion to make up for the miss), he went 2-2 on FGs for the day (including the game-securing make) and on kickoffs averaged 63.3 yards/kickoff and got touchbacks on 2 of 6 kicks.  Demos also helped to stick Illinois deep in their own end by averaging 37.6 yards/punt and hitting 2 of 5 punts inside the 20 yard line.  Finally, Smith's 51 yard punt return helped to set up the 'Cats' final TD of the day that tilted the game in NU's favor for good.

What a day for NU as students streamed onto the field to celebrate along with the players and drenched Coach Fitz (thanks, CJ, Tyrell, and others, he deserved it!) as NU took the Tomahawk for good and saw its win total reach 9 with a possibility to attain 10 wins - something only one other NU team has ever done.  Look for more reviews of this seasons both before and after the bowl game, but this year will go down as one of the most successful and featured one of the most resilient teams that responded to multiple injuries at key starting positions to reach a very high win plateau and vault NU to only its 7th bowl berth in history.  They have won games with offense, defense, and special teams, and a combination of all three, and they'll be representing Northwestern somewhere warm in late December/early January (more on that later).

Player of the Game: Northwestern DE Kevin Mims (7 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble)  Mims and the rest of the NU DL were in the backfield causing a ruckus throughout the game as they racked up 5 sacks and 9 total TFLs on the day and forced Illinois to its lowest point total of the season and holding them to over 100 yards under their season average.  Mims also forced the fumble that Davie recovered, setting up a FG that would seal the game for the Wildcats.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions:
- NU QB CJ Bacher (22 of 33 passing for 230 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT; 7 carries for 34 yards)  Bacher did a fabulous job in his Evanston finale, tossing 2 TDs and giving the 'Cats plenty of offense to win the game.  One of his TD passes was of the highlight reel variety as he ran to the right on a roll-out play, then threw back to the middle of the field, finding an open Ross Lane in the back of the end zone, who jumped to make the catch and stay in bounds for the score.  Also, CJ continued his streak of success when throwing less than 2 INTs in a game (he is undefeated in starts when he throws less than 2 interceptions in a game).
- NU Pass Protection: CJ dropped back 33 times to pass and was sacked zero times.  This against a unit that came into the game ranked 7th nationally in sacks.  Credit OC McCall for a solid game plan, the offensive line for protecting CJ, and CJ himself for making good decisions with the football (outside of his one INT).  NU's ability to pass, despite the lack of a substantiated threat at RB, very much contributed to this win for the 'Cats.
- WR Eric Peterman (8 receptions for 111 yards, 1 TD; 2 rushes for 5 yards)  Peterman had an excellent senior day as he caught pass after pass to lead the 'Cats in both receptions and receiving yards, and that includes NU's final TD on the day to put Northwestern up by 2 scores in the 4th quarter.
- LBs Kwateng & Williams (combined for 21 tackles, 1 sack, and 1 PBU)  Kwateng and Williams were all over the field on Saturday afternoon as they ranked #1 and #2, respectively, for NU in tackles on the day and were routinely making stops against the run as well as tracking down receivers with the ball.  Their effort helped NU put a lid on the Illini offense and allowed the 'Cats to control the game basically from the outset.
 - NU Seniors:  The Wildcats saw many seniors contribute on Saturday: TD passes from Bacher to Lane and Peterman, 5 clutch catches from Ward, great play from Belding (in for a couple of series) and Kennedy, Kwateng leading the way in tackles, Mims and Gill contributing on the line by applying some major pressure in the Illinois backfield, Villarreal hitting 2 of 2 FG tries, Daley and Brunner contributing to the special teams success, and those who couldn't make the field contributing in practice.
- Entire Defense:  One has to credit the entire Wildcat D for their effort on Saturday, holding Illinois in check for virtually the entire game and allowing only 10 points on the day.  The two forced turnovers were key for NU, helping them to win the turnover battle (+1 margin in favor of the 'Cats ), with the final forced and recovered fumble leading to the game-sealing FG.  DC Hankwitz deserves a lot of credit for crafting the game plan throughout the year and the players deserve as much credit for going out and executing it, with NU ending the season giving up an average of 19.3 points/game (24th nationally).
- Special Teams:  As mentioned earlier, the NU special teams did a great job of keeping Illinois deep in their own end (Illinois' best field position was at their own 44, and only twice did they start past their own 30 yard line), converting kicks (2/3 XPs, 2/2 FGs), and even generating something in the return game (Smith's 51 yard punt return, the longest NU punt return since 2005).

What to Work On:
- Right now, just enjoy victory.  The 'Cats just put the lid on the 2008 regular season in which they reached 9 wins for just the 5th time in school history.  For the next week or so, Northwestern should savor this feeling and look back on a very successful season.
- Next up, bowl game.  Following that, NU will hit the practice field again and prepare to try and do something that only one other NU team has ever done: win a bowl game.  While the Wildcats don't currently know their destination or opponent (and likely won't until December 7th), expect Fitz to get this team preparing hard to do something that hasn't been accomplished since 1949 - which was the one goal he layed out clearly heading into this season.

Random Observations:
- Attendance:  The crowd of just over 32,000 watched the NU victory on what was a great afternoon for football (a little chilly but with no precipitation in sight).  While it was a bit disappointing that more fans didn't come out to support an already successful 'Cats team with 8 wins going in, the game obviously lost some allure with Illinois limping into the game with 5 wins.  NU AD Phillips of course knows that attendance is a huge issue and this will be addressed going into next season.
- Penalties: NU held itself to only 2 penalties (for 28 yards) while Illinois was hurt more than a couple of times with 4 penalties for 48 yards.  NU knows that playing disciplined football puts them in a position to win games.
- Turnovers:  Like I mentioned in the game preview, turnovers would be a huge factor for this game, and in fact I turned out to be correct.  The Wildcats won the turnover battle by 1, which directly led to their win on the scoreboard.  Credit the offense for limiting turnovers (particularly CJ who threw 1 INT, but also Simmons for holding onto the football despite being targeted with some big hits), and the defense for grabbing an INT and a fumble to turn the momentum in NU's favor.
- Smith's Punt Return:  It took a while, but the 'Cats finally generated something on punt returns, as he took a punt 51 yards to the Illinois 20 to set up a big TD for NU.  The 51 yard return was the Wildcats' longest on a punt since 2005, which has arguably been the part of NU's game that has lacked the most under Fitz.  Hopefully it is a sign of good things to come.

Bowl Positioning
With a win propelling NU to 9-3 on the season, the Wildcats can officially do no worse than the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando.  Other bowls still in play are the Outback Bowl in Tampa and the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.  The 'Cats' chances of reaching the Outback Bowl were diminished a bit, though, with Iowa's pounding of Minnesota (giving them an 8-4 record to finish the year and within one of NU, allowing them to "jump" NU) and, more importantly, Oregon State's last second win over Arizona.  If Oregon State beats Oregon next week (they will likely be favored), they will go to the Rose Bowl and USC will likely take the remaining BCS at-large bid, locking Ohio State out of the BCS and keeping Big Ten teams from moving up the bowl ladder.  Needless to day, there will be many interested in the results of that Oregon State/Oregon game next week in Big Ten country.

If Oregon State loses next week and Ohio State gets the BCS at-large bid, NU will be in contention for the Outback Bowl but could end up in the Champs Sports Bowl given that Iowa will likely be picked ahead of NU.  With the next pick, the Alamo Bowl could take any available team due to a rule that they and the Outback Bowl would no longer be constrained by the "within 1 win of the highest available Big Ten team" if 2 Big Ten teams make the BCS.  The Champs Sports Bowl would still have such a restriction, so NU must be picked ahead of whichever team remains (since both Wisconsin and Minnesota are at 7-5 on the year).

If Oregon State wins, PSU would be the Big Ten's only BCS representative, OSU would fall to the Capital One, MSU to the Outback, then expect the Alamo to pick Iowa over NU (unfair, but likely) and then the Champs Sports would be required to select NU.

So, it looks fairly likely that the Wildcats will be heading to the Champs Sports Bowl unless some major posturing occurs and NU can convince bowl representatives that it is a more attractive option than Iowa (how about a better overall record and a head to head win over the Hawkeyes in Iowa City?).

Final Thought:

A big win over Illinois with a strong defensive effort (and great contributions from both the offense and special teams) was a great way to cap off a 9-win regular season for Northwestern that will go down as one of the best seasons in school history.  The seniors played a big part on their home finale, although like everyone else, they will have one more shot in a bowl game - and a chance to equal the best single season win mark in school history and do something only one other team in NU history has done, which is to win a bowl game.  For now, it is time to savor the victory (and the 9 wins this season) and to begin preparations for a warm bowl trip!

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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