Game Preview


NU at Illinois
Memorial Stadium
Saturday, November 14.  11:00 am CST
TV: ESPN Classic
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Illinois
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (6-4, 3-3), coming off of a huge upset of previously undefeated Iowa, take to the road again to face the resurgent Illinois Illini (3-6, 2-5) in the first battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy.  NU, already bowl eligible, will be looking to guarantee itself a bowl berth, while Illinois is looking to avoid bowl contention elimination, already garnering six losses.

But, the Illini are a vastly different team than the one that lost its first six games against FBS/I-A competition by an average of 17.8 points per game.  In fact, they've scored an average of 36.5 points per game during their current two game winning streak and seem to be living up to lofty preseason expectations, particularly for the offense.

And the defense hasn't exactly been slouching either, despite losing star MLB Martez Wilson for the season very early in the year.  DE Clay Nurse had four sacks last week against Minnesota (NU managed just one against the Gophers earlier in the year), and he also leads Illinois in tackles for a loss with 10.5 this season.

Northwestern, meanwhile, is arguably playing its best football of the season, having put together its first "complete" four-quarter effort against FBS/I-A competition last week against Iowa (who came into the game ranked No. 4 in the BCS).  The Wildcats avoided major errors in all three phases of the game while capitalizing on Iowa's problems, as shown by a +3 turnover margin and 14 points scored off of turnovers.

And to think that NU did that despite lingering injuries on both sides of the ball, including performance-hindering injuries to both the starting quarterback (Mike Kafka) and his backup (Dan Persa).  The Wildcats showed that they can respond to Coach Fitzgerald's call to "pick up the flag," with Persa running wild in the first half and Kafka standing tough in the second after Persa went out with a hand injury.

The defense, meanwhile, is finally beginning to live up to preseason expectations, holding an opponent under 100 yards rushing for the fourth time this year and blanking Iowa for the final three quarters of the game.  Corey Wootton made what may be the season-defining play for Northwestern with his sack and forced fumble in the end zone and is beginning to put in an effort resembling his first team all Big Ten season last year following his offseason knee surgery.

The Wildcats have won five of the last six in this rivalry series, but expect a closely contested game with both teams fighting for their postseason hopes and trying to gain some momentum heading into the final week of the Big Ten season.

Opening Line: Illinois by 3.5.

Who Should Win:

Northwestern.  I don't care what the line says; NU started off the season playing better than Illinois and has improved down the stretch, culminating in last week's big win over Iowa, and that despite some significant injures to contend with.

Meanwhile, Illinois, despite riding a two game winning streak that has staved off bowl elimination, is still giving up 26.6 points per game and may be forced to play a redshirt freshman at QB (and we saw what happened when Iowa was forced into that situation last week).

Upset Factor:

Illinois is undoubtedly playing much better football than they did through the first seven games of the season, and are finally utilizing some of that talent that Coach Zook has stocked up.  A key has been their run game, as they've averaged 225 yards per game on the ground in their aforementioned two game win streak.  If they can continue to use all of their offensive weapons with those results, they could pull off a win here.

What to Look for:

Northwestern Offense / Illinois Defense:

The Wildcats' hopes on offense are once again tied to the health of its quarterbacks.  Kafka tried limping through a few snaps early, but Persa was obviously the better option as he came in to throw a TD pass and run for 75 yards (removing sack numbers) in just about two quarters of action.  Unfortunately, his hand got dinged up and he was forced out of the game.

Kafka will get another week for his hamstring to heal, though, and with Persa day-to-day, NU could have a good problem with two dual-threat options available come gameday.  With Persa's solid performance last week, NU fans can be confident with either option behind center.

The offensive line did an admirable job last week, allowing just three sacks against a very dangerous Iowa defensive front who knew that NU had a hobbled QB back there for most of the second half.  And they even opened up enough holes for RB Scott Concannon to gain 59 yards (he never had a carry for negative yards), which definitely helped milk NU's lead.

Illinois, though, has been improving on that side of the ball and has obviously given them a chance to win over the past few weeks, including holding Michigan's spread attack to 13 points two weeks ago in Champaign.  LB Ian Thomas leads the way with 72 tackles on the year, Nurse provides a potent threat from one edge, while DT Josh Brent is second on the team in both TFLs (7.0) and sacks (3.0).

Despite some recent success, though, Illinois is still near the bottom nationally in most major defensive statistical categories, like total defense (91st), rushing defense (83rd), pass efficiency defense (88th), and scoring defense (78th).  Not to mention that they haven't done themselves any favors in takeaways, with only 14 on the year (tied for 82nd nationally).

Needless to say, NU has a prime opportunity to move the ball early and often and to put enough points on the board so that the 'Cats don't have to sweat out another last-second potential game tying or game winning drive on defense.

Northwestern Defense / Illinois Offense:

Illinois has a lot of weapons on offense and over the last two games has finally decided to start using them.  As mentioned earlier, they've averaged 36.5 points per game over the last two contests after scoring just 16.1 points per game in the previous seven contests (and that includes a 45 point effort against FCS/I-AA Illinois State).

Running backs Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford are both averaging over six yards per carry and have a combined 891 yards and six TDs on the season.  They both provide big-play potential and can be extremely dangerous on the read-option plays that Zook loves to run.

Star WR Arrelious Benn leads the receiving corps with 339 receiving yards, but the Illini feature multiple receivers who have both size and speed.  They will force the NU defense to cover the entire field when they're not worried about the potent run game.

Although Illinois is 99th nationally in passing offense, they have put together solid numbers on the ground, ranking 25th nationally.  They haven't been able to punch the ball in, ranking below 100th in scoring offense, but have obviously found a groove over the past two games.

Much of the offense hinges on the performance of the quarterback, though, with Williams' well-noted turnover struggles leading to significant losses over the last two seasons.  Much like NU's situation, it will be interesting to see who mans the QB position and what the offense will look like.

On defense, NU's primary goal will once again be to contain the running game: Illinois' biggest offensive threat.  The Wildcats actually rank 33rd nationally in rush defense, allowing under 120 yards per game on the ground.  Defensive tackles Adam Hahn, Corbin Bryant, Niko Mafuli, and Jack DiNardo will all be looking to carry the run-stuffing effort they put in last week over to this game.

The Wildcat linebackers and secondary have been suffering through numerous injuries so far this year, but are beginning to get some players back from the injury list.  CB Sherrick McManis put in his first full game for a while after being hampered with a lingering leg injury, and LB Bryce McNaul is back on the two-deep after a long absence.

The secondary will likely be tested, but that will be a good turn of events for Northwestern, as the Wildcat defense's primary goal will be to contain the multiple backfield running threats.

Special Teams:

NU kicker Stefan Demos was one of 20 placekickers nationally to be named to the Groza award watch list thanks to his 14-of-16 mark on field goals (his two misses were blocked).  He's been steady on kickoffs and punts, but the fact is that NU hasn't exactly been sticking its opponents deep as shown in NU's net punting ranking (108th nationally).

The 'Cats' return woes have been well documented and don't deserve much discussion.  Fortunately for the Wildcats, Illinois' return game is on par with NU's, ranking 113th on punt returns and 92nd on kick returns.

The Illini kicking game, meanwhile, has had a slew of issues.  Kicker Matt Eller has hit on just 4-of-10 field goals this season, and has hit on just one attempt beyond 30 yards.

In a potentially close game, special teams will be key.  If it comes down to field goals, NU must feel good with Demos' foot.  But all it takes is one play to change the fabric of the game, and either team is capable of either giving up or making such a play.

Miscellaneous Notes:

Third Down Conversions:  NU has continued its success moving the chains, ranking ninth nationally with a 49.4% conversion rate.  The 'Cats' 170 third down conversions is the second most nationally.  The Illini are managing just a 41.2% conversion rate.  On defense, NU is allowing a respectable 35.7% conversion rate while Illinois is yielding a 45.7% rate (108th nationally), which bodes well for the Wildcats.

Turnovers:  Last week, Northwestern moved to 4-0 on the year when it wins the turnover battle.  On the season, the 'Cats have a +0.2 turnover margin per game, while Illinois has a -0.1 turnover margin per game.

Scoring by Quarters:  Illinois has only been outscored by one in first quarters this year.  In quarters two through four, though, the Illini have been outscored by a total of 54 points (in fact, Illinois hasn't outscored its opponents in any quarter this season when taken cumulatively).  Northwestern, while having been outscored in quarters one, three, and four, has outscored its opponents by an impressive 67 point margin in the second quarter.

Injury Report:

Northwestern:  RB Alex Daniel (ankle, out for season), QB Mike Kafka (leg, probable), QB Dan Persa (hand, questionable), LB Ben Johnson (hamstring, doubtful), S Brendan Smith (hand, doubtful), OL Desmond Taylor (shoulder, doubtful).

The biggest question is, of course, the availability of the quarterbacks.  On Monday it was revealed that Persa's hand X-ray was negative and he's day-to-day.  Kafka's hamstring is better than it was and he is still recovering.  NU would like to use both quarterbacks but there's no telling who will be in game shape until kickoff on Saturday.

Smith also looks to be out again, as he was left off of this week's depth chart, and Brian Peters is being tested in basically every game now (he was responsible for coverage on Marvin McNutt's long TD grab last week) but hopefully he will continue to improve.

Illinois:  LB Martez Wilson (neck, out for season), QB Juice Williams (ankle, questionable).

Illinois is rather healthy for this time of year, with their biggest issue being the availability of Williams.  Their current option at QB is Jacob Charest, a redshirt freshman who has thrown just 27 passes this season in two appearances, but he is boosted by being on the field for the majority of last week's win at Minnesota.

Prediction: Northwestern 31 - Illinois 21

Expect the Northwestern defense to focus and succeed at stopping the Illinois run game, forcing another opposing true freshman QB to throw the ball to try and win.  Fortunately, NU is a bit healthier in the defensive backfield and has the horses to keep up with Illinois' potent receiving threats.  Illinois will score, but the 'Cats should keep their offense in check.

On the other side of the ball, NU faces the least threatening defense that it's seen in a while, and expect either Kafka or Persa to be able to go out and run the Wildcat offense effectively.  With the offensive line finally beginning to play reasonably well, it gives the Northwestern offense a good chance to move the football and put points on the board.

Like almost every Big Ten game that Northwestern plays, this should be a tough, physical battle, but one that should end up in NU's seventh win of the season, essentially guaranteeing the Wildcats a bowl berth and ending Illinois' flickering postseason hopes.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

Previous jhodges commentary