#22 Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Northwestern Wildcats: Brutally Honest Game Preview


Big Ten conference play begins with the annual in-state rivalry game between the Northwestern Wildcats and Illinois Fighting Illini. It does feel a little weird not having this game played on the last week of the season, when all the other intrastate, intra-region bloodfeud games are held.  But last year it was such a special event that it’s hard not to get excited for the 2011 edition.

Remember last year? The Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs hosted the Wrigleyville Classic, with ESPN Gameday and Erin Andrews visiting Chicago. And of course, the goofy everyone going the same way on offense because of the short-sighted brain-dead planning in regards to the end zone barrier less than six inches from the wall. That didn’t make anyone here look good.

One guy who did look good was Mikel Leshoure who broke the Illini single game rushing record. Illinois relied on a powerful rushing attack—totaling 519 yards on the ground—to turn a 27-24 halftime deficit into a 48-27 win over NU. The Wildcats were playing for the first time without quarterback Dan Persa, who injured his Achilles tendon the week prior against Iowa.

dan persa passing

Northwestern Analysis (2-1, 0-0):

This is the one BHGP I can write from pure memory. I know all the names and stats off the type of my head. But I know how awesome you find Brutally Honest Game Preview, so I can’t leave it alone the game needs me. I consulted both team’s game notes in detail for this one.

NU has been triumphant in six of its last eight meetings with Illinois dating to 2003, with an average margin of victory of 12.3 points. The ’Cats also won their last trip to Memorial Stadium,  21-16 in 2009. Northwestern is 8-4 in Big Ten road games since the start of 2008 and on Saturday will look to improve its 3-3 mark in its last six against ranked opponents.

Saturday’s game will likely mark the return to the field of senior and All-Big Ten quarterback Dan Persa. He has not played in a game since Nov. 13, 2010, when he led NU to a 21-17 comeback win against Iowa, injuring his foot while throwing the game-winning touchdown pass. Persa, who has 2,805 career  passing yards and 17 passing touchdowns, was 7-3 as a starter in 2010. That’s the good news for the Cats.

The bad news is that the Cats are 2-4 without Persa, and ironically the defense, not the offense is what truly fell off a cliff since he left. The Cats have an ugly loss to Army on their resume. Army is 1-3 with ugly losses to NIU and Ball State on their resume. NU did win at Boston College, but BC is yet to defeat an FBS college football team this year.

But they have Persa back now, so does that change everything?

First of all that Heisman campaign was a beautiful train wreck, and just 100% unintentionally hilarious. Persa’s listed with the dreaded and extremely ANNOYING “OR” on the depth chart. I HATE HATE HATE the “OR” because it basically says you don’t truly believe in either option, so you’ll just put an “or” so you don’t have to man up and take a stance. The only advantage of the “or” is it gives less info to your opponents- in theory anyway.

Maybe Persa really is like former MSU Spartans star point guard Kalin Lucas, who suffered the same Achilles injury. Lucas was a fringe NBA Draft pick, and repeat Big Ten player of the year before the injury. Afterward, he was nothing close to what he once was. Is Persa on the the same path? Or will he shock everyone by being an explosive dual threat tearing up the Illini defense?

For the full Northwestern season preview go here

Illini Analysis (4-0, 0-0):

Senior RB Troy Pollard (a runner in the Daniel Dufrene, Rocky Harvey mold) leads the Illini ground attack with a team-high 260 yards on only 25 carries (10.4 ypc). Illinois is 14th in the nation in rushing currently.

A fifth-year senior, Pollard (nicknamed “Bucket of hair” for obvious reasons) ran for a career-high 133 yards on 14 attempts (9.5 ypc) last week against Western Michigan, marking his second 100-yard effort in the last three games (101 vs. South Dakota State on 9/10).

He provides the “lightning” in the “thunder and lightning” type backfield approach. Freshman Donovonn Young is the thunder.

And he continues the famed tradition of #5 in Champaign: Mikel Leshoure (a Detroit Lions rookie who will miss the season with an injury) and the Pittsburgh Steelers Rashard Mendenhall (who’s developed into a Pro Bowl, 1,000 yard rusher style NFL back) it’s easy to see why the jersey number is starting to take on a special meaning for Illinois Fighting Illini football.

In addition to Young and Pollard, Senior RB Jason Ford has 23 career rushing TDs, tying him with Mikel Leshoure, Ty Douthard and Red Grange for seventh on the UI career list. He needs just two more to move up to second place and is eight behind Howard Griffith’s UI career record of 31. Ford currently ranks 19th on the UI career rushing list (1,577 yards). And don’t forget sophomore fullback Jay Prosch, who’s blocking paves the way.

Prosch is ranked among the top fullback prospects in the 2014 NFL Draft class.

Yes, that’s right- I know about 2014 mock draft rankings for the fullback position. I’m just that nerdy.

During the Ron Zook era (since 2005), Illinois leads the conference in rushing yards per game. The Illini’s 206.7 yards per game (15,913 yards in 77 games) in the last six-plus seasons tops Wisconsin’s 200.9 ypg (16,470 yards in 82 games) during that same time span. Illinois’ 241.8 ypg this season ranks 14th in the nation. The Illini have finished the season ranked in the top-20 nationally in rushing yards per game in four of the last five years.

Maybe it’s a good thing for this game that the Illini looked so poor last week against Western Michigan. After the big win over nationally ranked Arizona State, WMU was their so-called “trap game” heading into the big rivalry contest this week.

For the full Illinois season preview go here

Prediction to be taken with an entire truckload of salt, not a grain of salt: Illinois 34, Northwestern 21 (2010-11 prediction record 25-12)

Over 70 percent of Illinois’ plays this season have been runs (197 rushes in 281 total offensive plays).  The Illini have led the conference in rushing in three of the last five years (2006, ’07 and ’10).

Northwestern is dead last in the Big Ten and 104th in the nation in run defense. “Ruh-roh” if you’re a NU fan. NU comes in 23rd in the nation in rushing, but…Illinois ranks fifth nationally in rushing defense, allowing a Big Ten-best 56.5 ypg. The Illini have allowed a total of 226 rushing yards this season, which is less than Illinois’ rushing average on offense (241.8 ypg).

Ruh oh again.

“It’s pretty good to be 4-0, you should see the smiles and people jumping around in the locker room,” Pollard said about the Illini first 4-0 start since 1951.

This should be a fast moving game in which the Illini move to 5-0. You’ve heard the exceedingly shopworn expression “throw out the records when these two get together.” Well the tired cliche applies here as the team with the better record almost always wins.

Last year was an exception because Persa was hurt, and it was a novelty game played in a decrepit, quirky old stadium.

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net, an official Google News site that generates millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter Football.com, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports

He does regular weekly radio spots in Chicago and Cleveland and has appeared on live shows all across the world from Houston to New Zealand. The President of the United States follows him on Twitter (@Paul_M_BanksTSB) You should too.

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