lllinois vs. Northern Illinois: the Brutally Honest Game Preview

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There’s an old adage in football that the biggest improvement a team makes is from the first week to the second. Your 2010 Illinois Fighting Illini are a true testament to this, especially starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. He grew up a ton last week. But they have two other playmakers on both sides of the ball:

Linebacker Ian Thomas and running back Mikel LeShoure. Both are rather overlooked because Illinois is well, kind of a….”basketball school.” But Thomas can be effective both inside and out, and LeShoure has topped the 100-yard mark in both games this season, going for 112 yards on 20 carries in the opener against Missouri and 15-115 yards on 15 carries last week against SIU.

Dating back to last season, Leshoure has topped 100 yards in three straight games and in five of his last eight. During that span, Leshoure has 798 yards on 114 carries (7.0 ypc).

By Paul M. Banks

Throughout the season, I’ll be bringing you these informative yet blunt game previews of every contest I cover (and a second game that week that interests me); with a heavy focus on my three “home teams” Northwestern, Illinois, Notre Dame, and the Big Ten in general

illini-cheerleader

Illinois synopsis: One staple of the Ron Zook era has been subpar special teams, and an absolutely horrific punting game. However, 2010 is a brave new world as senior punter Anthony Santella leads the Big Ten and ranks second in the NCAA in punting with an average of 49.0 yards on nine punts, including five of 50+ and two inside the 20. He averaged a career-best 50.8 yards per punt in the SIU game, tying the fifth-best
single-game average in school history.

All Illini talk usually starts with the new coordinators, and although we’ve seen some improvements in Paul Petrino’s offense, Vic Koening’s defense really seems to have a quick learning curve. After two games, Illinois has the 12th ranked rush defense in the nation. Combine that with a philosophy of Chicago Bears Coach and one of the most BORING soundbites in all of sports Lovie Smith, “get off the bus running,” and the Illini could find themselves having a solid season.

Illinois averaged 205.0 rushing ypg from 2006-09, leading the Big Ten. They led the conference in rushing yards per game in 2006 and 2007 and were second in 2009, just 3.4 ypg behind leader Wisconsin. This season Illinois is averaging 184.0 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 40th nationally.

The Illini averaged 200.4 yards per game on the ground last season, ranking 17th in the nation and marking the third time under Zook that the Illini averaged over 200.

NORTHERN-ILLINOIS

NIU Synopsis: First of all, they have a coach with the coolest name ever.  Jerry Kill is the only Northern Illinois coach to lead the Huskies to back-to-back bowl games in the “major college” era (since 1969) with trips to the Independence Bowl in 2008 and the International Bowl last season. Kill has posted a 14-14 record in two years at NIU, highlighted by the bowl trips and Northern Illinois’ 28-21 victory over Purdue a year ago, NIU’s second win over a Big Ten team all-time and the school’s first Big Ten victory in 21 seasons.

NIU earned its first win of 2010 with a 23-17 decision over North Dakota last week. NIU got 318 yards on the ground from the duo of quarterback Chandler Harnish (21 carries for 178 yards) and tailback Chad Spann (21 carries for 140 yards) with Harnish scoring on a 40-yard touchdown run to provide the decisive score in the fourth quarter. The Huskies amassed 510 yards of total offense but had a field goal and a punt blocked and saw another drive stall inside the 10-yard line. In week one, the Huskies lost 27-10 to Iowa State.

Guys you’ll see Saturday eventually playing on Sundays: LeShoure is not Rashard Mendenhall yet. But there’s an outside chance he could be someday. Martez and Tavon Wilson (no relation) have NFL measurables and athleticism, but have not displayed the football resume and instincts of a prospect for “The Shield,” so far. But then again look at former Illini DT Josh “I’ve had a little bit too much, much” Brent. He made the Dallas Cowboys despite accomplishing nothing on the collegiate gridiron.

For NIU, none that I’m aware of.

Prediction to be taken with a grain of salt (actually make that a whole truckload of salt)

ILLINI 34, NIU 10 (Banks’ record 3-1)

Illinois is 12-0 all-time against the other public universities in the state. The Illini are 3-0 against Northern Illinois, Southern Illinois and Illinois State, 2-0 against Eastern Illinois and 1-0 against Western Illinois. The combined score of those meetings is 483-168 in favor of the Illini and all but one of those 12 meetings have come since 1985 (Illinois played ISU in 1944). This year marks the first time Illinois has played more than one in-state public university in the same season. No reason to think the Illini won’s stay perfect versus “Directional Illinois” after this week.

Paul M. Banks is President and CEO of The Sports Bank.net , a Midwest focused webzine. He is also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, the Chicago Tribune’s blog network, Walter Football.com, the Washington Times Communities, Yardbarker Network, and Fox Sports.com

You can follow him on Twitter @thesportsbank and @bigtenguru

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