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September 18, 2010: Northern Illinois (1-1) vs. Illinois (1-1)

Fighting the Fighting Illini: Previewing the Northern Illinois University Huskies

The only thing certain about Saturday afternoon’s Illinois-Northern Illinois game is the uncertainty.

Northern Illinois is unsure whether head coach Jerry Kill will be able to man the sidelines due to an undisclosed illness while Illinois is waiting to see if wide receiver Eddie McGee will be able to play after suffering a sprained in the Southern Illinois game.

With that said, let’s look at the Northern Illinois Huskies in more detail.

More on the Illini Injury Bug

If things keep up at their current pace, the Illini will not have anyone to play come season’s end.

McGee is listed as a day-to-day decision for the NIU game after injuring his ankle in the first half of the 35-3 Illini win over SIU.

The fact that the Illinois coaching staff has moved Jack Ramsey back to offense to fill McGee’s spot does not bode well for his return.

Ramsey was moved from receiver to defensive back in the preseason due to the rash of injuries on the defensive side of the ball.

Northern Illinois Coaching Uncertainty

Kill was hospitalized on Sunday as a result of complications from a previous surgery.

Kill and his family have remained mum on what the problem is, but they have claimed it does not have anything to do with the coach’s fight with cancer in 2005.

There is no word on whether or not Kill will be able to coach the Huskies this weekend, but NIU has said it already has plans for Huskies’ defensive coordinator to take over as the head coach until Kill can return.

Writing Illini wishes coach Kill a speedy recovery.

Looking Back at Week Two for the Illini and Huskies

Both teams won their home openers in week two after suffering road losses in week one (the Illini loss was technically a neutral site loss).

Illinois trounced SIU 35-3 in what many were expecting to be a close game while Northern Illinois defeated North Dakota 23-17.

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase showed off his skills against the Salukis, accumulating 229 passing yards and 2 passing touchdowns.

For his outstanding performance, Scheelhaase was named the Big Ten freshman of the week.

After quarterback DeMarcus Grady threw 3 picks and no touchdowns in a loss to Iowa State, Northern Illinois started Chandler Harnish at quarterback against North Dakota. Harnish threw for 146 yards and a touchdown but also had an interception.

How NIU fared in 2009

The Huskies finished 7-6, a record that does not do the team justice.

The Huskies had several quality wins, including a 28-21 win at Purdue, a team that defeated the Fighting Illini 24-14.

Northern Illinois would make the International Bowl in Ontario, where they were defeated by South Florida.

Series History

With last week’s win, Illinois can still claim that it has never lost to another public in-state university.

The Illini are 12-0 against public in-state universities.

Illinois and Northern Illinois have met three times before this Saturday’s matchup.

All three meetings have been in Champaign, and the Illini have come away with a victory in each encounter.

In 1992, Illinois beat a Northern Illini team that would finish 5-6 overall.

The 1992 Illini would finish 6-5-1, a record that was good enough to finish fourth in the Big Ten and play in the Holiday Bowl.

In 1994, the Illini trounced the Huskies 34-10. Ironically, the 1994 Illini were the last Illinois team to beat Missouri.

The Illini would go on to finish 5th in the Big Ten with a 7-5 record in 1994.

NIU and UI last met in 2001, when the Illini would win the Big Ten regular season title with a 10-2 record, play in the Sugar Bowl and finish 12th in the national polls. Kurt Kittner and the Illini barely squeezed out a 17-12 win against a determined Huskies squad in 2001.

While history is on the Illini’s side, the past counts for nothing when the two teams face off this weekend. If Illinois can stay focused and play at the level it did last weekend, the Illini will continue its unbeaten streak against in-state public universities.

However, if the Illini get caught looking ahead to Ohio State or underestimating their opponent, things could get very interesting.

Key Matchups

The following matchups will be key to deciding what them emerges victorious this weekend.

Illinois Secondary vs. NIU Passing Attack

While NIU quarterback Harnish had a decent game against FCS foe North Dakota, he still turned the ball over, and Grady had 3 picks against Iowa State.

The Illini defensive players MUST capitalize on this situation and create some more turnovers.

Although the secondary did an excellent job of shutting down Salukis’ quarterback Chris Dieker last weekend, it did not have any interceptions. In fact, Illinois is one of only three Big Ten teams not to have at least one interception yet.

In 2009, Illinois finished tied for last in the nation in interceptions, a feat the Illini cannot afford to repeat if they hope for a better record in 2010.

Mikel Leshoure vs. NIU Defensive Line

Despite preseason claims that Illinois would be using a dual back system this year, Leshoure has clearly emerged as the team’s first-string back. He has put together back-to-back 100+ yard games and scored 2 touchdowns against SIU.

Northern Illinois will surely key in on Leshoure when trying to stop the powerful Illinois run game.

While a dual-back setup with Jason Ford can be used to get some pressure off Leshoure, he will continue to need to hit the holes and break tackles on Saturday.

Martez Wilson and Ian Thomas vs. Quarterback Scramble

While both linebackers have been having productive seasons, the Illini face a new threat in NIU.

While Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert and SIU’s Dieker were pocket passers, both of NIU’s potential quarterbacks love to scramble.

Wilson and Thomas must make sure not to get caught up in chasing the quarterback if he leaves the pocket. They must continue to cover their man until the NIU quarterback passes the line of scrimmage, something that seems a bit simplistic on paper but is actually more difficult during live game action.

Three Illini Players to Watch

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase

Despite his conference honors, Scheelhaase’s impressive performance against SIU was largely missed on the national level due to fellow Big Ten quarterback Denard Robinson (who is leading the Big Ten in both rushing yards and rushing attempts while still being 4th in the conference in passing yards) and his record-setting day at Notre Dame.

After showing what he is capable of against SIU, look for more of the same from Scheelhaase on Saturday.

With the confidence growing in his passing abilities after completing touchdown passes of 33 and 54 yards against Southern Illinois, Scheelhaase will likely throw a few more long balls against the Huskies.

Linebacker Ian Thomas

While most of the discussion around the linebacker position has been about the return of Wilson, Thomas has been very impressive.

Thomas has been a constant source of big plays and crushing hits.

It will be interesting to see how Thomas handles the new style of offense, but if recent showings are any indication, expect him to make a few plays in the backfield.

Bandit Clay Nurse

Nurse had a good showing last Saturday after taking over for Michael Buchanan following his suspension from the team for a DUI.

Nurse’s role will expand with the new rushing threat from the NIU quarterbacks.

Nurse will likely be in more of a contain package than a blitzing one, but if the Huskies get too comfortable running the ball, the coaches won’t hesitate to send Nurse in to keep them honest.

Alright.

Check back on Friday for Writing Illini’s game prediction and on Saturday for another live play-by-play and game tweets.

You can watch the game on the Big Ten Network at 11:00 a.m. central time.

Until then.

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