Northwestern had plenty of success in the rushing game, allowing the Wildcats to take a 27-14 lead over the Fighting Illini into the locker room. Here's seven points to remember from Northwestern's moderately successful first half. It's worth noting that the Wildcats couldn't really be stopped on offense, as the Fighting Illini had no answer for Venric Mark and Kain Colter.
1. Illinois did everything it could to give Northwestern the ball back on its opening possession. The Fighting Illini began with a dropped snap, followed by a badly overthrown ball to a wide-open receiver. Illinois even racked up a sideline interference penalty along the way. Yet, the Wildcats let the Big Ten’s worst offense on third down, at just 32 percent, convert two critical third downs en route to an opening touchdown. The latter came on a perfectly run option to Illinois running back Donovonn Young, who took it 15 yards into the end zone. But first, there was the weekly slew of missed tackles from the Wildcats. On the Fighting Illini’s first third down, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase rolled right and found wide receiver Darius Millnes. Cornerback Nick VanHoose had Millnes wrapped up immediately after the catch, but he let Millnes slip away, after which Millnes powered through several other Wildcats to pick up a first down. Then, later on, safety Ibraheim Campbell missed a tackle on a screen allowing the wide receiver to pick up five additional yards. To cap off the trifecta, cornerback Daniel Jones was badly fooled on a deke move from Young, falling to the ground as Young cut right around him. The missed tackles continued into Illinois’ second drive, when defensive end Dean Lowry snuck into the backfield only to badly miss a tackle on Young. On third-and-22, Northwestern missed another two tackles on Scheelhaase’s pass to Josh Ferguson; fortunately for the Wildcats, Ferguson fell as he tried to cut near the right sideline.
2. Northwestern’s special teams were the story of the first quarter. First, Tony Jones proved that the Wildcats’ superlative work in the return game isn’t simply a result of Venric Mark’s speed. Jones rode the same blocks to a 51-yard return, made all the more important by the fact that Illinois had jumped out to an early 7-0 lead. Kicker Jeff Budzien continued to make his case for the Lou Groza Award with a 44-yard field goal that barely twisted through the uprights. Budzien has now made five-of-six from 40-plus yards out. Finally, C.J. Bryant forced a fumble with a thunderous hit to set up Northwestern’s touchdown to take a 10-3 lead. Even kicker Steve Flaherty had the chance to show off some cojones, as he led with his helmet on a strong Illinois return up the right sideline. Then, it was back to the man of the hour, however, as Budzien rocketed a 36-yard field goal through the uprights to give Northwestern a 27-14 lead.
3. It became immediately clear that quarterback Kain Colter was in a running state of mind, rushing for 30 yards in the first quarter. Most impressive was a play in which Colter rolled left all the way to the left hash before turning back and sprinting around the right end for a 17-yard gain. He also rushed for a touchdown. On the negative side, Colter took some spirited hits, first when he was flipped in the air as he dove forward for a successful third-down conversion, then when he pounced on a fumbled snap. After the latter play, Colter lay on the ground momentarily, but after a few seconds, sprinted off of the field. Colter finished the half with 75 rushing yards on 6.8 yards per carry. His 28-yard rush on third-and-14, aided by a huge block that allowed him to weave through the middle to the right sideline, set up the Wildcats' final hurrah of the first half.
4. Northwestern had the ultimate insurance policy on its second touchdown pass, as Kain Colter found Tony Jones sprinting across the end zone. If Jones had somehow whiffed on the perfectly thrown ball, the Wildcats had a backup, as Christian Jones was cutting the other way right behind him.
5. The Wildcats continued to be susceptible to passes over the middle on Saturday. From Nathan Scheelhaase’s first overthrown pass to a wide open receiver over the middle to Riley O’Toole’s liner to tight end Jon Davis over the middle, the Fighting Illini were able to pick apart the middle of the field. Nearly all of Illinois’ big passing plays came off of screen passes or on mid-range passes over the middle. A lot of their big plays were also aided by missed Northwestern tackles, including on Illinois’ second touchdown, as Riley O’Toole evaded several tackles to rumble into the end zone. Somehow, the Wildcats managed to make O’Toole look like Scheelhaase.
6. Watching Illinois’ first drive down the field, one could be forgiven for wondering how the Fighting Illini are 2-9. Then fans saw their slew of stupid penalties and began to understand. Illinois had 78 penalty yards before the Wildcats earned a single yellow flag. Most were of the idiotic variety, whether it was two sideline interference penalties or a number of useless personal foul calls.
7. Leading 17-14 in the second quarter, Northwestern resorted to its rushing game, after airing it out early in the game. After Kain Colter slashed right for one first down, the Wildcats resorted to the power rushing game, with Tim Riley busting through the middle for big gains on two consecutive rushes. Venric Mark then successfully picked up a first down on an option left, followed by beautiful runs through the right side and left side of the line to put Northwestern into Illinois’ red zone. Mark finished the drive with a powerful three-yard run through the middle, slamming through several tacklers to earn his way into the end zone. The Wildcats thus completed a 79-yard drive, with all 79 of their yards coming on the rush, to take a 24-14 lead.