2011 Illinois Fighting Illini Football

 
Big Ten football fans

Illinois vs Northwestern Football Preview

 

Usually, when Northwestern and Illinois renew their in-state rivalry, the clash is a mere footnote to the Big Ten season, one remote event removed from the larger and more compelling dramas of a proud and prominent football conference. The same could still be said of this year’s renewal of the Land of Lincoln’s main football duel, but the fact that this contest is being staged so early in the season will make it harder to ignore the Wildcats and the Fighting Illini. This weekend’s game in Champaign, Illinois, carries more weight than usual for each of the participating schools.

The Illinois Fighting Illini, 4-0 for the first time in sixty years, host in-state rival Northwestern in the teams’ Big Ten opener Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Northwestern has won six of the last eight against Illinois, although the Illini won last season’s contest 48-27 at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

Last Saturday, the Illini struggled against Western Michigan but surged in the second half, dominating physically and controlling the ball over the final two quarters to win by a 23-20 score. Illinois rushed for 296 yards and displayed the flinty, rugged persona that has carried coach Ron Zook’s team to a perfect September. The Illini haven’t yet left the confines of home, which is part of the reason they’re sitting at 4-0, but then again, past Illinois teams would have found ways to lose a game at some point. This year’s bunch has held the line to this point, toughening up when the moment has demanded an extra dose of determination.

Northwestern enjoyed a bye week, which gave quarterback Dan Persa another week to recover from the torn Achilles tendon he suffered last season. The Wildcats’ senior signal-caller is expected to make his season debut on Saturday. That’s what makes this game particularly important for NU, and especially significant as a barometer of the Wildcats’ quality. Big Ten pundits will eagerly await this contest precisely because they want to see how good Northwestern can be with its main man under center. The Wildcats needed a playmaker at quarterback in their 21-14 loss at Army. NU’s passing game looked hamstrung for most of the day, so Persa’s arrival for conference play is a godsend for coach Pat Fitzgerald’s crew.

 



Without Persa, the Wildcats started 2-1, winning at Boston College and at home against Eastern Illinois before falling on the road against Army. Northwestern’s usually potent running game struggled at Army, and will face an Illini defense ranked fifth nationally in fewest rushing yards allowed per game. The Wildcats average 220.7 yards on the ground, while Illinois gives up just 56.5. With that said, Persa’s playmaking dimension will give NU a chance to diversify its offense and make substantial statistical gains compared to the team’s first three outings of the season.

With all this having been said, Persa’s not the only quarterback (or playmaker) in this contest. Sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has led the Illini offense with proficiency and poise this season, throwing for 637 yards and running for 224. Scheelhaase hasn’t been dynamic, but he’s certainly been steady in 2011, and whenever games have been tight in the fourth quarter, Illinois has been able to carve out the first downs needed to keep opposing offenses off the field.

Illinois relies on a stable of running backs to keep the ball moving, led by Jason Ford, Troy Pollard, and true freshman Donovonn Young. Last week, Pollard ran for 133 yards, and Young ran for 100. A.J. Jenkins is by far the Illini’s top receiver, with 28 catches for 365 yards on the season.


By: Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer

 

 

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