Post-Game Analysis: Illinois
by Jonathan Hodges
On a rather balmy mid-November afternoon, Northwestern (7-4, 4-3) defeated
Illinois (3-7, 2-6) by a final score of 21-16 to claim the very first Land of Lincoln
Trophy, after bringing home the last edition of the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk last
year in Evanston. The game was also an important milestone for the Wildcats, as
NU is now guaranteed of a winning record on the year and a bowl berth (the bowl
pairings will be announced on Sunday, December 6).
The game started off
as a field position battle, with the two teams combining for just three points
in the first 29:43 of the game, although Northwestern managed to grab the lead
just before halftime on a 28 yard Mike Kafka pass to Zeke Markshausen following
an Illinois turnover. Prior to that, the Wildcats had missed two field goals,
while the Illini missed one of their own on a drive that started at the NU 35
after Stefan Demos shanked a punt.
In fact, it was quite a forgettable
day for NU kicker Stefan Demos, who missed all three of his field goal attempts
of 47, 50, and 31 yards, and had the aforementioned shanked punt that went for
all of 12 yards. The Illini special teams efforts weren't much better, as they
missed a 23 yard field goal and had two punts go for touchbacks instead of
pinning Northwestern deep.
Speaking of pinning NU deep, the drive of the
game came in the third quarter after Illinois pinned NU at their own one yard
line. Following a false start penalty, the Wildcats had the ball as close to
their goal line as possible. Here is the sequence of events that
First and 10+ at NU 1: Kafka run for 2 yards.
Second and 8
at NU 3: Scott Concannon run for 13 yards. First Down
First and 10 at
NU 16: Kafka pass to Andrew Brewer for 11 yards. First Down
10 at NU 27: Kafka pass to Brewer for 52 yards. First Down
10 at Ill 21: Kafka pass to Markshausen for 20 yards. First
First and Goal at Ill 1: Kafka run for 1 yard.
That score put NU up 14-3. Northwestern would drive for
another touchdown on their next drive, a 12 play 80 yard drive capped off by an
Arby Fields TD run (his first touchdown since the Purdue game). The Wildcats
were going to the air and carving up the Illini defense thanks to Kafka's
precision strikes and had built up a 21-3 early in the fourth quarter.
anyone who has watched the 'Cats knows, though, NU finds a way to make every
game interesting. Illinois QB Jason Charest, who started the game but was
pulled after a rather poor showing in the first half, returned in the fourth
quarter and promptly led the Illini on an 11 play 80 yard touchdown scoring
drive, capped off by his own 10 yard TD run. Illinois went for two to try and
cut their deficit to only 10, but failed.
On the ensuing kickoff,
Illinois made a surprise on-side kickoff attempt, but NU special teams member
Hunter Bates astutely jumped up and grabbed the ball before any Illini players
got close to the ball. That gave NU the ball at the Illinois 40 yard line with
a chance to seal the game, as they led by 12 with just over 10 minutes left to
NU moved the ball down to the Illinois 14 yard line, helped out by
a pass interference penalty, and set themselves up for a make-able 31 yard field
goal that would have put NU up by 15 with just about six and a half minutes to
play (which would have forced Illinois to score two TDs and convert a two-point
conversion on at least one of them). Instead, Demos missed his third field goal
of the day and the 'Cats had given Illinois a chance to get back into the
The Illini didn't waste their first opportunity, promptly driving
80 yards in under two and a half minutes for a touchdown off of a Charest pass
from 32 yards out, and cutting the NU lead to 5 (21-16). With just over four
minutes to play and Illinois holding all three of their timeouts, they decided
to kick off to the 'Cats and force NU to move the ball or else give the ball
back with a chance for Illinois to win.
Northwestern gained a first down
and burned almost three minutes of time, but were forced to punt as they
predictably kept the ball on the ground and couldn't churn out another first.
Illinois got the ball back on their own 21 with 1:14 left on the clock and no
After two incomplete deep balls, Charest completed his third
down pass attempt and set up fourth-and-one with the clock ticking. He
seemingly completed a pass to Jarred Fayson that would have been a first down,
but Sherrick McManis immediately tackled him and came up with a ball. The
officials ruled it an interception, later saying that the receiver never
completely possessed the ball while McManis pulled it off of his chest for an
The play was reviewed and the ruling on the field stood,
giving NU the ball back and allowing the 'Cats to down the football, run out the
clock, and come away with their seventh win of the 2009
Player of the Game:
QB Mike Kafka (23-of-37
passing for 305 yards and 1 TD; 7 rushes for 12 yards and 1 TD) Despite
still being hampered with his hamstring injury, his spot-on passing allowed the
Wildcats to move the ball well in the middle of the game and pile up a lead that
would be good enough for the win. He was a big reason that Northwestern avoided
any turnovers on the day, the first time this season that NU avoided any
turnovers in a game. Although some points were left on the field thanks to
three missed field goals, he and the offense did enough for the 'Cats to take
home a big win.
Northwestern Honorable Mentions:
Zeke Markshausen (6 catches for 104 yards and 1 TD) Despite dropping the
ball on a fourth down late in the second quarter, he responded nicely, grabbing
a 28 yard pass just seconds later (on the drive after a Nate Williams
interception) and putting NU ahead 7-3 at the half. Once again, he proved to be
the Wildcats' most reliable receiver.
RB Scott Concannon (9 carries
for 37 yards for 4.1 yards per carry) Despite not being an every-down
running back and not putting up huge numbers, he does what it takes to help NU
churn out victories. He had to vital carries to help propel the 'Cats to a win:
the 13 yard run with NU backed up against its own end zone, and the 8 yard run
to gain a first down and help eat more clock near the end of the
CB Sherrick McManis (5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 interception)
McManis racked up his team-leading fourth interception of the year which put an
end to Illinois' last-gasp comeback attempt. He also grabbed a big tackle for a
loss earlier in the game and helped limit Illinois to just 162 yards
Offensive Line: The 'Cats only allowed one sack on the
day, despite having Kafka essentially immobilized, and opened up enough room to
generate 139 rushing yards. The line finally looks like its gelling, and its
solid performance was definitely a reason that the 'Cats avoided any turnovers
on the day.
What to Work on:
After having starting the year making 14-of-16 field goal attempts with his only
two misses being blocked, Stefan Demos had quite a forgettable day, missing
three attempts and shanking a punt. Hopefully he got it out of his system, and
thankfully the NU offense did enough for the Wildcats to pull out the
Defensive Line: Although the Northwestern defense limited
Illinois to just 16 points on the day, they didn't generate much pressure up
front, grabbing just one sack while allowing 4.7 yards per rush. If the 'Cats
had trouble this week they'll face an even tougher test against Wisconsin's
large front next week as they look to open up holes for John Clay, the Big Ten's
Finishing: Yes, NU won the game thanks to a big
defensive play, but the 'Cats' didn't do themselves any favors by letting
Illinois score two TDs in the final quarter to close the deficit and put
themselves in a position to try and win the game. The Wildcats had multiple
chances to come up with that big defensive play earlier, the offense could have
put the icing on the cake by getting it in the end zone, and the special teams
blew their chance to make a short field goal.
For the second straight week, NU fans have heard plenty of
whining from the opposition over how the officials called the game. Once again,
a team that finds itself relying on a judgment call or two from the officials
probably hasn't put itself in a position to win the game.
There was an
arguable non-call as LB Bryce McNaul made contact with the Illinois' intended
receiver on a failed two point attempt. But, it looked like the receiver
intentionally slowed and initiated the contact, while McNaul made no effort to
impede the receiver (he did make a move on the ball, though, by batting it down
And on Illinois' fourth down pass attempt, it was hard to tell
exactly what happened, but the officials were in the best position to call the
play, and the referee explained it well after the game where he said the
receiver never clearly possessed the ball, while McManis grabbed the loose ball
off of the receiver's chest for the interception.
In the end,
Northwestern did what it took to win the game while Illinois did
Turnovers: The 'Cats
moved to 5-0 on the year when winning the turnover battle (2 turnovers to no
giveaways), as they grabbed two interceptions (half the number that Illinois has
had during the entire year.
All-time run: With the win, NU
clinched back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1995-96 and
back-to-back bowl berths for the second time ever. The current 22-14 run over
the last three years is the best over such a period since 1995-97.
Trophies: Northwestern grabbed the first edition of the
Land of Lincoln Trophy; they won both the first and last editions of the
now-retired Sweet Sioux Tomahawk trophy.
Third Down Conversions:
After coming into the game converting 49.4% of their third downs, Northwestern
converted just 35.7% (5-of-14) against Illinois. The defense played its part,
though, allowing a conversion rate of just 28.6% (4-of-14).
With the win over Illinois, Northwestern guaranteed
itself a bowl berth and all but guaranteed a warm weather destination. The most
likely options are the Champs Sports Bowl (Orlando, FL on December 29), the
Alamo Bowl (San Antonio, TX on January 2), and the Insight bowl (Phoenix, AZ on
The exact positioning mostly depends on whether the
conference gets two teams into BCS games, which the Big Ten is in a good
position to do. Ohio State has locked up the automatic berth to the Rose Bowl,
while Iowa (No. 13 in the BCS) and Penn State (No. 14 in the BCS) are both
eligible and in good position for one to be selected for a BCS at-large berth if
they win games next week in which they will likely be favored (against Minnesota
and Michigan State, respectively).
If that happens, and the rest of the
season plays out the way its expected, then Northwestern is in prime position to
go to the Champs Sports Bowl (the fourth selection in the conference, moving
down to fifth if a Big Ten team gets a BCS at-large berth). If not, then the
Insight Bowl is a likely destination since the Alamo Bowl hosted NU last year
and would be hard-pressed to take them in two consecutive seasons.
matter what happens in next week's Big Ten games (well all except the
Indiana-Purdue game, which features two teams eliminated from bowl contention),
the actual destination won't be obvious until they are announced during the
afternoon of Sunday, December 6, about three weeks from now.
It wasn't pretty, but once again Northwestern did what it
took to pull out a gritty road win over a conference rival. The 'Cats have now
won six of the last seven against Illinois and have guaranteed themselves of
both a winning record and a bowl berth this season.
But, the work isn't
done, as Northwestern faces a tough Wisconsin team next week to close the
regular season. Yes, we know that the 'Cats will be playing somewhere warm in
about a month and a half, but the Wildcats need to bring it to try and finish
the regular season on a strong note.
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