Illinois 38, Northwestern 35: Rapid Reaction

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It was a game that could have changed the Northwestern season. The Wildcats had Dan Persa back, had an 18-point lead on the road, and had momentum. Then, it all fell apart.

Northwestern did everything in its power to lose on the road at Illinois. So did the Fighting Illini. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, fate appeared to be favoring orange over purple in the Big Ten season opener. Northwestern fell to Illinois 38-35, allowing the Illini to keep possession of the Land of Lincoln trophy.

Recap:

The teams traded possession several times in the first quarter before Illinois finally managed to break through and score with just over two minutes remaining. Northwestern, however, responded with 14 points off touchdown passes from Dan Persa in his first action of the season. Illinois should have added a late touchdown, but a questionable pass interference call forced the Illini to settle for a field goal.

The second half started all Northwestern, as two more touchdown passes from Persa, both to Jeremy Ebert, allowed the Wildcats to extend the lead to 28-10. From that point on, however, it was all Illinois.

The Illini scored 21 straight points, taking advantage of a Northwestern secondary that looked lost, confused, and completely out of position. However, the Illini fumbled with little time left, giving Northwestern a short field. Jacob Schmidt ran for a touchdown with 1:15 seconds left, but the score came far too early.

Nathan Scheelhaase ran the one-minute drill to perfection, leading the Illini down the field to a rushing touchdown with 13 seconds left. Northwestern’s hook and ladder final attempt was mildly entertaining, but ended forty yards short of a game-winning touchdown.

 

Player of the Game:

A.J. Jenkins/Brian Peters

The choice for the Illini is obvious. A.J. Jenkins looked like he was facing a high school secondary, often catching passes with no defender within ten yards. On the game, he had 12 catches for 268 yards and three touchdowns, bringing in a significant majority of Scheelhaase’s passing attempts.

For Northwestern, Brian Peters had his bright moments. An interception in the end zone prevented the Illini from taking an early lead, and Peters forced the fumble that led to a go-ahead score for NU late in the game. Unfortunately, the rest of the game from the secondary was less than satisfactory.

 

Stat of the game:

391: Last season, Illinois’ rush attack embarrassed the Northwestern defense en route to a blowout. This season, the Illinois passing attack embarrassed the NU secondary en route to a close win. Scheelhaase was accurate, completing 21 of 32 attempts, including three touchdowns. However, most of the throws weren’t terribly difficult considering how open his wide receivers were. Regardless of that, however, Scheelhaase proved that he is much more than a running quarterback, and except one ill-advised throw into the end zone early on, played a nearly perfect game.

 

What it means:

Northwestern has now lost two in a row, leaving the Wildcats at a disappointing 2-2 on the season, 0-1 in the Big Ten. The Wildcats face Michigan at home next weekend in a night game. The Wolverines are fresh off beating up on Minnesota 58-0 this week, and have quite a bit of momentum from starting the season 5-0.

This will likely be one of the toughest tests of the season for NU. The Wildcats cannot afford to start the Big Ten season 0-2, especially when three of the four games following Michigan are Iowa, Penn State and Nebraska.

Luckily for the Wildcats, Denard Robinson has yet to truly prove himself as a passer against a legitimate defense. Unluckily for NU, the defense has yet to prove that it’s legitimate. This will be a pivotal game for NU, who must win to avoid letting the entire season slip between their fingers.

-Jamie Arkin

twitter.com/jamie_arkin

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