Northwestern-Illinois: Battle for the First Land of Lincoln Trophy

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Northwestern-Illinois: Battle for the First Land of Lincoln Trophy
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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 Fighting Illini (3-6, 2-5) in the first battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy.

NU is already bowl eligible, while Illinois is looking to avoid being eliminated from bowl contention with another loss.

The Illini are, however, 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 the offense.

The defense hasn't exactly been slouching either, despite losing star MLB Martez Wilson 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.

Meanwhile, Northwestern is arguably playing its best football of the season, having put together its first "complete" four-quarter effort against FBS/I-A competition beating previously-ranked No. 4 Iowa.

The Wildcats avoided major errors in all three phases of the game while capitalizing on Iowa's problems, with a +3 turnover margin and 14 points scored off of those.

NU did that despite lingering injuries on both sides of the ball, including performance-hindering injuries to both the starting QB Mike Kafka and backup QB 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.

The defense is also beginning to live up to preseason expectations, holding an opponent to 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 a season-defining play for Northwestern with a sack and a forced fumble in the end zone. After his offseason knee surgery, Wootton's season is beginning to resemble his first team, All-Big 10 campaign last year.

The Wildcats have won five of their last six against Illinois, but expect a closely contested game with both teams fighting for postseason hopes heading into the final week of the Big 10 season.

 

Opening Line

Illinois by 3.5

 

Who Should Win

Northwestern.

I don't care what the line says.

Despite some significant injuries, NU started the season playing better than Illinois and has improved down the stretch, culminating in last week's win over Iowa.

Meanwhile, Illinois is giving up 26.6 points per game and may be forced to play a redshirt freshman at QB. We saw what happened when Iowa was in that situation last week.

 

Upset Factor

Illinois is undoubtedly playing much better football than they did through the first seven games of the season. 

They are finally utilizing some of that talent that Coach Zook has stocked up.

Their run game is key. They've averaged 225 yards per game on the ground during their current two-game winning streak.

If they can continue to use all of their offensive weapons, they could pull off a win.

 

What to Look For

Northwestern Offense against the Illinois Defense:

The Wildcats' offensive hopes 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 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, and with Persa day-to-day, NU could have a problem with two dual-threat options come game day.

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 for the second half.

They opened up enough holes for RB Scott Concannon to gain 59 yards (no carries for negative yards), which definitely helped milk NU's lead.

However, Illinois has been improving on that side of the ball, holding Michigan's spread attack to 13 points two weeks ago in Champaign.

Linebacker Ian Thomas leads the way with 72 tackles on the year. Nurse provides a potent threat from one edge and DT Josh Brent is second on the team in both TFL (7.0) and sacks (3.0).

Despite some recent success though, Illinois is still near the bottom nationally in most major defensive statistical categories: 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).

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

 

Northwestern Defense against the Illinois Offense:

Illinois has a lot of weapons on offense and has 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, including a 45-point effort against 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 ranked 99th in passing offense, they have put together solid numbers on the ground, ranking 25th in rushing offense.

They haven't been able to punch the ball in, ranking below 100th in scoring offense, but have obviously found a groove the last two games.

Much of the offense hinges on the performance of QB Juice Williams and his 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 looks like.

On defense, NU's primary goal will be to contain the running game, Illinois' biggest offensive threat.

The Wildcats 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 bring the run-stuffing effort from last week over to this game.

The Wildcat linebackers and secondary have suffered numerous injuries this year, but are beginning to get some players back. Cornerback 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 in the two-deep after a long absence.

The secondary will likely be tested, which is 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 NU hasn't exactly been sticking its opponents deep, as shown in NU's net punting rank(108th).

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, as either team is capable of giving up or making a game-winning kick.

 

Miscellaneous Notes

Third-down Conversions:

NU has continued its success moving the chains, ranking ninth nationally with a 49.4 percent conversion rate.

The Wildcats' 170 third-down conversions are the second most in college football.

The Illini are managing just a 41.2 percent conversion rate.

On defense, NU is allowing a respectable 35.7 percent conversion rate while Illinois is yielding 45.7 percent (108th).

 

Turnovers:

Northwestern is now 4-0 this season when it wins the turnover battle.

The 'Cats have a +0.2 turnover margin, while Illinois is at -0.1.

 

Scoring by Quarters:

Illinois has only been outscored by one in the first quarter 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 an opponent in any quarter this season when taken cumulatively.

Northwestern has been outscored in quarters one, three, and four, but outscores opponents by an impressive 67-point margin in the second.

 

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

Of course, the biggest question is the availability of the quarterbacks.

On Monday it was revealed that Persa's hand X-ray was negative and he's listed as day-to-day.

Kafka's hamstring is better than it was, but he is still recovering.

NU would like to use both QBs, 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. Brian Peters is being tested in basically every game now (he was responsible for coverage on Marvin McNutt's TD 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 the season's end, 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 was boosted by lots of playing time in 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.

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. Kafka or Persa should be able to run the Wildcat offense effectively.

With the offensive line finally beginning to play well, the NU offense has a good chance to move the football and put points on the board.

Like almost every Big 10 game that Northwestern plays, this should be a tough, physical battle.

It should also be NU's seventh win of the season, guaranteeing them a bowl berth, while ending Illinois' postseason hopes.

Go 'Cats!

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