Northwestern will commence Big Ten play on the road in Champaign in a legends and leaders division crossover game. Last year’s game was the first one Northwestern played without first team all Big Ten Quarterback Dan Persa. The cycle of Persa’s injury could come full circle as Persa and Kain Colter are listed as co-starters on the depth chart this week.
The Illini ran for 519 yards in last season’s 48-27 demolition of Northwestern at Wrigley Field. Illinois blew open a 27-24 halftime lead by shredding the Wildcats 21-3 after halftime. Illinois enters the game ranked 22nd and 24th.
The past few years Northwestern has had one of the most explosive offenses in the Big Ten. Through this season’s first three games, the Wildcats have relied on their ground game without Persa under center. They will face one of the Big Ten’s best defenses Saturday.
The Illini allow only 56.5 rushing yards per game and they rank third in Passing Efficiency defense. The Illini defense features the top two pass rushers in the Big Ten. Whitney Marcilus leads the Big Ten with four sacks and Michael Buchanan is second with 3.5.
The Illini lives by the old school adage of running the ball and playing defense are the keys to success. Illinois boasts four rushers that have topped 200 yards through the first four games and a stellar defense.
Nathan Scheelhaase has developed into one of the nation’s most efficient passes in 2011. He ranks second in the Big Ten and 16th nationally in passing efficiency. Has also rushed for 224 yards. Seniors Troy Pollard and Jason Ford and Freshman Donovonn Young have ably replaced Mikel Leshoure in the backfield.
Senior receiver A.J. Jenkins ranks second in the Big Ten in receptions per game and third in yards per game.
Despite its 2-1 record, stastically, Northwestern isn’t off to the good start they hoped for. After their loss at Army, the Wildcats rank ninth in the Big Ten in total offense and last in total defense.
Northwestern might have trouble averting another ground assault. The ‘Cats rank last in the conference against the run. After facing Army that can be a bit misleading though. The Black Knight run the ball almost exclusively. Northwestern was unable to slow the Army rushing attack and we saw what the Illini can do against Northwestern last season.
Persa’s potential return should help the Northwestern passing game. Pat Fitzgerald has said that this is his deepest team at NU. The Wildcats rank just 103rd in the country in passing and 76 in points through three weeks. With a talented receiving corps, look for Northwestern to commit more to the passing game with Persa back. They running game has been so efficient the first three weeks, NU hasn’t had to put the ball up as much as they have the last dew years.
Northwestern’s Venric Mark could make a difference on special teams. The Sophomore Wide Receiver averages 28.9 yards per kickoff return. Linebacker Bryce McNaul is fifth in the Big Ten in tackles per game.