by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
Chances are if you're a Northwestern fan, you didn't sleep very well last night. It's not that the Wildcats have any business losing this game or even that they will. It's certainly not that Illinois is an opponent worth losing sleep over. It's not even that Northwestern has had difficulty winning the games it should win in the past. In fact, the Wildcats have done remarkably well over the past couple of years taking care of business — just ask Minnesota and Indiana, two teams which Northwestern blows to smithereens half the time and toys around with half the time. Still, there's no doubt that Champaign was one of the ugliest moments of the Wildcats' 2012 season. First, Illinois stole Northwestern's 18-point lead; then the Fighting Illini stole the Wildcats' song, blaring "Sweet Home Chicago" over the Memorial Stadium loudspeakers after their 38-35 win. They rubbed it in even further by putting "Illinois' Only Undefeated Big Ten Team" on the scoreboard. Never mind that Illinois is now the "Big Ten's Only Winless Team" at 0-7 in conference play, the last two years really stole Northwestern's thunder, first at Wrigley and then in Champaign. After the Wildcats had seemed to cement their superior status by taking the final Sweet Sioux Tomahawk and the inaugural Land of Lincoln Trophy, suddenly the Fighting Illini had made clear that in this intrastate rivalry, Northwestern had a ready and willing rival. Somehow, the Wildcats rallied back and at 8-3 are moving in the opposite direction as 2-9 Illinois. With so much to play for, it's only natural for Northwestern fans to be a little nervous. The question is: Is there really anything to be nervous about? Here, I take a look at some of Northwestern's chief weaknesses and see if Illinois has what it takes to exploit them.
There's no question that Northwestern has had a hard time handling bigtime receivers in recent years. Does Illinois have the type of big-play threat that will give Wildcats' fans nightmares for years to come?
Fear not, Northwestern fans, A.J. Jenkins is gone. Remember him, that talented receiver that burned the Wildcats for 268 yards and three touchdowns on 12 receptions last season. He turned out to be a good one; indeed, he was a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers. Once again, Illinois' offense does feature a dominant receiver in Ryan Lankford, but unlike Jenkins, who demanded the ball and was able to open himself up for at least four receptions in every game in 2011, Lankford has had a hard time getting involved in the offense. Ever since he tallied seven receptions for 104 yards against Penn State, he has had no greater than four receptions in each of his last six games and has had no more than 47 receiving yards in any one contest. He has quite literally fallen off the map. Especially when you consider that those six games include contests against susceptible defenses such as Minnesota's and Indiana's, Lankford's production is lacking. He had just seven receptions for 31 yards in four games combined, losses to Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan and Wisconsin. Northwestern's defense is closer to the level of a Purdue than it is an Indiana. The Wildcats should be able to shut Lankford down. And that's if Lankford even plays. He's questionable for Saturday's game, according to the Chicago Tribune, with an ankle injury. Remember that in Northwestern's last two losses to Illinois, two premium NFL-caliber offensive players destroyed the Wildcats' defense: current Lions running back Mikel Leshoure in 2010 (330 rushing yards on 33 carries) and current 49ers wide receiver A.J. Jenkins in 2011. This edition of the Fighting Illini seems to lack players of that caliber.
There's no question that Northwestern has had a hard time with mobile quarterbacks in recent years. Nathan Scheelhaase certainly qualifies as a dual-threat quarterback, but does he have the type of explosive quality that will allow him to torment the Wildcats?
Against Michigan, Northwestern lost in no small part because it couldn't keep Devin Gardner in the pocket. Similar difficulties have flared up this season with Taylor Martinez (65 rushing yards on 3.6 yards per carry) and MarQueis Gray (86 rushing yards on 9.6 yards per carry), and the Wildcats have certainly given up more than their share of third-down conversions to mobile quarterbacks. So, does Scheelhaase have what it takes to exploit Northwestern's susceptible contain defense? Fortunately for Northwestern, it appears that Scheelhaase's ankle injury from earlier this season continues to limit his explosiveness. He has rushed for no more than 84 yards in a game this season, though he is coming off of a 76-yard performance against Purdue. This remains something to be concerned about, but certainly, Scheelhaase's rushing totals have not been great this season. In his last four games, Scheelhaase has failed to eclipse 19 yards on any singular run, and he hasn't posted a 30-plus yard run all season long.
Northwestern has infamously given up a lot of big leads this season. Indeed, the Wildcats have let double-digit leads fall by the wayside in all three of their losses this year. Are the Fighting Illini capable of posting a big comeback?
Illinois generally lacks the offense to fight back from serious deficits. Against Purdue, Illinois was able to produce a scare, but in previous games this season, the Fighting Illini have really struggled in the second half. Against Wisconsin, Illinois hung tight for three quarters, before the Badgers blew the Fighting Illini away with 21 fourth-quarter points. Against Indiana, Illinois again fell silent, despite the Hoosiers' susceptible defense, scoring just three points in the second half. The Fighting Illini have been on the wrong side of a lot of blowouts this season, including a 45-0 loss to Michigan, and have shown little life in coming back.
Northwestern has had a hard time against quarterbacks who can launch the deep ball, namely Ryan Nassib, Taylor Martinez and Matt McGloin. Will the Wildcats' secondary be similarly tested by Nathan Scheelhaase?
Fortunately for the Wildcats, who have been targeted deep all season long, Nathan Scheelhaase has yet to show much of a big-play arm. Aside from a 64-yard pass against Western Michigan and a 49-yard pass against Minnesota, Scheelhaase has yet to toss a 30-plus yard pass all season long. He has just four touchdowns against six interceptions on the season. In fact, Illinois averages just 5.7 yards per pass attempt, the worst such figure in the Big Ten, and has only 11 touchdown passes in 11 games. For an up-and-down Northwestern secondary, this Saturday presents a premium chance to build confidence.
Northwestern's bend-not-break defense relies on big plays to stem an opponent's momentum. For all of the five-yard runs the Wildcats give up, they rely on five-yard sacks and big stops behind the line of scrimmage on first down to disrupt an opponent's drive and get the ball back. When they can't get to the quarterback, they have a tendency to get picked apart. Could that happen on Saturday?
Coach Pat Fitzgerald was very complimentary about the National Football League prospects on Illinois' line, but the Fighting Illini have surrendered a conference-worst 37 sacks this season. That's a little greater than three sacks per game. It's also 12 more than any other team in the conference. So it figures that the Wildcats' much-improved defensive front should be able to get to the quarterback and create their share of big plays against the Fighting Illini. Certainly, Illinois already has 26 giveaways on the season, so for a hungry Northwestern defense that has seven forced turnovers in its last two games, the Fighting Illini could prove to be a gold mine. Even when they weren't generating picks, the Wildcats have been forcing fumbles and prying away at the ball all season long. Illinois has 15 fumbles on the season, second-worst in the conference. Expect Northwestern to have a field day with that.
Northwestern has had a bad habit of stalling offensively, with three-and-outs suddenly taking the place of touchdown drives midway through the game. Does Illinois have the potential to force three-and-outs?
Surprisingly, yes! Illinois' defense might not be very good, but the Fighting Illini have been very good on third down, surrendering first downs on just 29.6 percent of their opponent's third-down tries. That's the best such figure in the conference. If Illinois can quickly get Northwestern off of the field, then they have a chance at tiring out the Wildcats' defense. Indeed, the Fighting Illini have done a pretty good job of staying even on time of possession all season long, so this could be Illinois' best shot at winning the ball game. If Illinois can clog up the middle and set up a few third-and-longs, they could force Northwestern's defense right back onto the field. Of course, the Fighting Illini are surrendering greater than 180 rushing yards per game on 4.4 yards per carry, so clogging the middle might be difficult. If Venric Mark can have his way, Illinois might not get a chance to exhibit its skills on third down. Indeed, the Fighting Illini have the fewest third down chances on defense of any team in the conference. Also working in Northwestern's favor is Illinois' wretched pass defense, which has given up 8.1 yards per attempt, worst in the Big Ten. If the Wildcats can air it out with some success, their biggest struggle all season long, then the Fighting Illini have little chance of winning on Saturday.
Northwestern has had a bit of a hard time when the pressure is on this season, losing in front of six-figure crowds in University Park and Ann Arbor, while falling to Nebraska in front of a loud mixed crowd at Ryan Field. Should fans have any concerns about how Northwestern reacts to their home crowd on Saturday?
The last time the Wildcats played a home game, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama were preparing for one last week of electioneering, Hurricane Sandy had yet to make landfall on the East Coast and university administrators were praying that no student decided to wear blackface on Halloween this year. It's been a while, and with Illinois down this year, and Northwestern coming off of a big win, we should see a very enthusiastic pro-Northwestern crowd at Ryan Field. That's good news given that vocal Nebraska supporters forced Northwestern to switch to the silent count at the Wildcats' own home stadium earlier this season. The Wildcats have never seemed to fare well against loud opposing crowds. The Wildcats have historically fared well on Senior Day, with wins in three of their last four, including wins over Illinois in 2008, Wisconsin in 2009 and Iowa in 2010. Indeed, Northwestern tends to play above its talent level on Senior Day, so expect a highly motivated team on Saturday. No one loves Senior Day more than Pat Fitzgerald. Just watch his post-game interview when the Wildcats beat the heavily favored Badgers in 2010. Expect Northwestern to play with all of the fire and energy you could ask for.