Fighting the Illinois Fighting Illini: Previewing the Northwestern Wildcats


After last weekend’s disappointing home loss to Minnesota, Illinois is still one win away from bowl eligibility as the team gets its third chance to clinch a postseason game on Saturday against instate rival Northwestern.

The Wildcats are coming off a huge home win against #13 Iowa on a last second touchdown that sealed the upset but came with an unfortunate price when starting quarterback Dan Persa tore his ACL.

Besides Northwestern playing without Persa and Illinois fighting for its bowl lives, the UI-NU game has the added storyline of taking place at historic Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.

If Illinois can’t get it done at Wrigley against an NU team sans Persa, the team’s bowl hopes will likely go down the drain, even with a trip to Fresno State still on the schedule.

Quite honestly, we’ll see what the Illini are made of this weekend.

How Northwestern Has Fared This Season

The Wildcats are on track for their best season in Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure as head coach.

After starting the season 5-0, including close wins over Minnesota and Central Michigan, the Wildcats let one slip at home against Purdue.

NU followed up that loss with another one at #7 Michigan State, thus falling to 5-2.

The following week, Northwestern scored late in the fourth quarter to put away Indiana and become bowl eligible for the season.

The Wildcats fell apart at Penn State, letting a 21-3 lead turn into a 35-21 loss, giving Nittany Lion head coach Joe Paterno his 400th career win and falling to 6-3.

Instead of pouting, the Wildcats took out their aggression on rival Iowa.

The #13 Hawkeyes visited Evanston with a chance to clinch a share of the Big Ten title, but the Wildcats had other plans.

Iowa went up 17-7 at the end of the third, but Northwestern rallied to score two touchdowns, including one as time expired, to seal the win.

However, the incredibly versatile Persa tore his ACL on the play and is out for the rest of the season.

Persa set a single season record for completion percentage in the Big Ten this season, and his presence will be missed.

Illinois – Northwestern Series History

Illinois and Northwestern, the state’s two premier academic institutions, are also rivals.

Northwestern is one of Illinois’ annual trophy games.

The two teams used to play for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk.

However, as part of the NCAA’s efforts to remove all Native American references from its schools (see Chief Illiniwek), the trophy was discontinued in 2008.

The teams now compete for the Land of Lincoln Trophy.

Illinois holds a narrow lead in the overall series with the Wildcats, and Northwestern has been steadily closing the gap.

The Illini are 52-46-5 all time with their neighbors to the north.

However, the Illini are just 1-6 in the past 7 meetings.

This year’s game is being played in Wrigley Field in Chicago and ESPN’s College Gameday will be broadcasting live from the game.

Besides the Wrigley Field angle, this contest is sure to be exciting as Illinois seeks that final win to become bowl eligible.

Key Matchups

Illinois’ Defense Versus Northwestern’s Tackle Shedding

Against Minnesota, Illinois’ defenders constantly missed tackles or simply bounced off of Golden Gopher players.

In fact, the Illinois defense has had a hard time all November of bringing down their opponents after contact.

In order to stop the Wildcat’s offense, Illinois defense needs to make solid tackles and limit the yards after the catch.

Evan Watkins vs. Illinois’ Secondary

With Persa out, Wildcat freshman Evan Watkins will get his first career start against the Illini.

Illinois needs to pressure the young quarterback, who has only thrown 7 passes in his college career, and force some early turnovers.

Moreover, the Illini need to capitalize on opportunities.Twice against Minnesota, passes bounced off the hands of Illinois defenders who were unable to make the interception.

Eliminate the Dumb Penalties

In the last two games, Illinois has killed itself with costly, fourth-quarter penalties.

Illinois needs to play smart and not give the Wildcats any extra downs if they want to come away with their sixth win of the season.

Three Players to Watch

  • Nathan Scheelhaase

The freshman quarterback is still the leader for the conference freshman of the year honors.

Scheelhaase really needs to have two more solid games, and a bowl birth would significantly help his cause.

The freshman hasn’t thrown an interception since the Michigan State loss, and he will need to continue to play smart if he wants to get that elusive sixth win.

Corey Liuget

Liuget is leading the Illini in sacks and tackles for a loss and has an excellent opportunity to bolster his stats this weekend against the freshman Watkins.

Liuget is getting plenty of notice from NFL scouts, and a big performance in a clutch game like this weekend’s would move him further up on the lists of many pro teams.

Martez Wilson

Wilson, the leader of this defense, really needs to lead by example this week.

After two letdown performances, the Illinois defense is likely feeling down, but it shouldn’t be feeling out. With the last two week’s removed, the defense has been a pleasant surprise. It’s time for the defense to get back to business and get the Illini to the bowl game that’s well-deserved this season.

Wilson needs to make sure the defense simply uses the past two weeks as motivation to get back to the dominant force it was in October.