There are almost too many storylines heading into Saturday’s matchup between Northwestern and Illinois at Wrigley Field. Between the historic venue, the rivalry and the injury to star quarterback Dan Persa, it’s easy to forget the game itself has bowl implications. Here’s a look at how it should all go down:
Northwestern Offense v. Illinois Defense
Redshirt freshmen quarterback Evan Watkins has big shoes to fill when he replaces Dan Persa in his first career start, but at least he has the benefit of playing Illinois. In the last two weeks, the Fighting Illini defense has given up an appalling 105 points, including 67 against Michigan. Their one bright spot on the defense is junior middle linebacker Martez Wilson, who is second in the Big Ten with 94 tackles. His impact has been felt all over the field though, as he has added two sacks, an interception, a blocked punt and two forced fumbles.
The Illinois defense has been stout against the run and has only allowed Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor to break the century mark on the ground. They have held stars like Penn State’s Evan Royster to humble statistics and surely are not intimidated by Northwestern’s Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith. Although the two have been playing better lately, Illinois should not have a problem limiting them.
The Illinois success against the run has not translated to the passing game, though. The Fighting Illini have continuously had issues getting after the quarterback, and opposing throwers have picked apart the defense. Watkins’ biggest question mark heading into the historic matchup is how he will replicate Persa’s unique scrambling ability. The offensive line’s ability to give him time will be a key to his success. If the youngster can develop confidence in the pocket, he has the arm and talent to light up the scoreboard.
Northwestern Defense v. Illinois Offense
This is more a question of which Northwestern defense shows up than anything else. Last week, veterans like senior linebacker Nate Williams had monster performances. Williams was in on tackles all over the field, and the defensive line dominated the line of scrimmage for the most of the game. Looking back a couple of weeks ago, though, it was a different story. Penn State and Indiana both moved the ball at will — in fact, almost every team except Illinois State and Iowa has been successful offensively against Northwestern.
The run defense will be key to this game, as Illinois’ offense revolves around the ground game. Junior halfback Mikel Leshoure has run for 100 yards six times on his way to 1,041 yards so far this season, along with a whopping 11 touchdowns. While the ‘Cats held the Iowa running game in check for most of Saturday, Penn State’s Evan Royster and Silas Redd combined for 265 yards on 36 carries the week before. Illinois’s freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is a running threat himself, and the ‘Cats will need to keep an eye on him. As we saw in the Purdue game, the read-option can kill this Northwestern defense, and no team does it better than Illinois. If Northwestern can replicate the Iowa performance up front, though, it will put pressure on Scheelhaase and make the Fighting Illini uncomfortable.
Scheelhaase has a great short game in the air as well, mostly due to the defense concentrating on the run. He averages a conservative seven yards per attempt, which suits a Northwestern defense with problems on deep passes well. Scheelhaase does not have the arm-strength to scare the Northwestern secondary, which should be able to play closer to the line of scrimmage and try to contain the run. The passing game is not going to hurt Northwestern and should not really make an impact, as this game will be won or lost in the trenches.
It’s as simple as this: The team who shows up ready to play on Saturday is the team who will win. It will be won on the line of scrimmage, which will dictate the efficiency of Illinois’ running game and the amount of time Evan Watkins has in the pocket to get comfortable. At the end of the day, Northwestern has the better coaching staff, the coach with more gusto and a defensive line ready to have a huge game. After battling stars like Adrian Clayborn and Ryan Kerrigan all year, left tackle Al Netter and the Northwestern offensive line will take advantage of the matchup and Watkins will pleasantly surprise. Northwestern takes home the historic win, 24-13.