2011 Predictions & Game Story
Week 5 - Northwestern at Illinois
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Oct. 1 at Illinois 38 … Northwestern 35
CFN Analysis: Call this the true season-making moment for Illinois as it could've buckled, could've folded, and seemed to do everything possible to give the game away with bad penalties and turnovers. Instead, Nathan Scheelhaase and A.J. Jenkins showed the Illini could win through the air with the two connecting 12 times for 268 yards and three touchdowns, and Scheelhaase finishing with 391 yards and three scores with the game-winning rushing touchdowns. It hasn't always been pretty, and the eight penalties and three turnovers can't happen against Ohio State in a few weeks, but with Indiana up next, a 6-0 start is likely. There's still time to tighten up on both sides of the ball, but this was a terrific gut-check win for an ultra-confident team led by a quarterback playing at a high level.
The return of Dan Persa made a huge difference, but he was banged up a bit, the defense and the secondary couldn't handle A.J. Jenkins and the Illini passing game, and this was a second straight disappointing loss. The Wildcats were given every break and had a big lead, but the offense couldn't go on any big marches to put the game away in the fourth quarter. Persa was excellent, completing 11-of-15 passes for 137 yards and four scores, but he couldn't find any running room. Even so, the Wildcat offense still moved well Treyvon Green coming up with 85 yards and Mike Trumpy adding 60 more. With Michigan up next followed up by a trip to Iowa, getting a win next week is vital or the season could start slipping away. With No. 7 back, through, the offense should be able to hang around with anyone.
(AP) CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase scored a 1-yard touchdown with 13 seconds left Saturday to lead No. 24 Illinois to a 38-35 comeback win over Northwestern.
The sophomore QB threw for a career-high 391 yards and three touchdowns for the Illini (5-0, 1-0). All three TD passes went to A.J. Jenkins, who had 12 catches for a school-record 268 yards.
Scheelhaase had to engineer two comebacks to pull out the win over the Wildcats (2-2, 0-1).
First, Illinois scored 21 unanswered points after Northwestern took a 28-10 third-quarter lead. Then Scheelhaase scored the game-winning touchdown after a late touchdown run by Jacob Schmidt gave the Wildcats a 35-31 with just over a minute to play.
Wildcats quarterback Dan Persa played his first game in almost a year after tearing an Achilles tendon. He left late in the game but it wasn't immediately clear why.
Northwestern (2-1) at Illinois (4-0) Oct. 1, 12:00, ESPN2/ESPN3
Here's The Deal … Last year Illinois and Northwestern played a historic game at Wrigley Field. Chris, Kirk, and Lee showed up, the national spotlight was on, and everyone wanted to talk about the gimmick game on a field that was too small and only allowed the offenses to go one way. Illinois destroyed the Wildcats as Mikel Leshoure ran wild, but Northwestern didn't have its best player to try to keep up the pace.
The 2010 game will always be remembered, but this year's matchup is far, far more intriguing, at least on the field, as the Wildcats get back Dan Persa, who missed the Wrigley game after suffering a torn Achilles' tendon. While there was some speculation that he could've started the season opener against Boston College, he gave it a full month more of recovery time, and now the injury that was around 85% in early September is now 100% fully healed and ready to go for the start of the Big Ten season.
The Wildcats should've been 3-0, but they inexplicably couldn't score on an Army defense that's giving up points and yards in bunches. With two weeks to rest up and prepare, they'll be ready, while Illinois is very, very quietly having its best season in over half a century.
1951 was the last time Illinois started out a season 4-0, and that team went on to go 9-0-1 with a Rose Bowl win over Stanford to close things out. This year, Illinois might have gotten a layup against South Dakota State, but beating Arizona State isn't a cheap and Western Michigan and Arkansas State aren't the layups they appear to be on brand name. This is a battle-tested Illinois team with a world of upside, and if it can win this week, 6-0 is a guarantee – next week the Illini goes to Indiana – before facing Ohio State.
Why Northwestern Might Win: The Wildcats aren't screwing up, and they'll win the turnover battle by at least a +2 margin. So far this year, a brilliant Luke Kuechly interception in NU's win over Boston College is the team's lone turnover, while the defense has come up with four takeaways in the first three games. Illinois has lived off the takeaways, picking off six passes and coming up with three fumbles, and it's getting a ton of breaks on penalties. Arizona State and Western Michigan each committed eight sins, and while Illinois has committed five penalties in each of the last three games, there haven't been many killers. Illinois needs Northwestern to give away cheap yards leading to easy points, and that's not going to happen.
The Wildcat linebackers have been far better than it might have seemed two weeks ago. Army ran wild for 381 yards and three touchdowns, but the run defense was rock-solid over the first two games and the defensive front did a decent job of getting to the quarterback. The Knights completed one pass two weeks ago, and while NU's defense couldn't figure out how to get off the field, now it's seen a great running game and a top running quarterback. More importantly, it's had two weeks to figure out how to stop another great running game and a top running quarterback.
Why Illinois Might Win: Can the Northwestern line protect Persa? It might be all systems go for No. 7, but it would've been nice to have had a warm-up act before the main event. If Persa really is back to normal, mobility isn't a problem and getting the ball out of his hands in a hurry isn't an issue, but Illinois has been phenomenal so far at getting to the quarterback and it's been great at stopping running plays before they can get started. No defensive front in the Big Ten is playing better than the Illini's, and while the NU offensive front hasn't been bad, it's not talented enough or athletic enough to handle the pressure it's about to face.
The Illinois defense has already faced three excellent quarterbacks in Arkansas State's Ryan Aplin, Arizona State's Brock Osweiler, and Western Michigan's Alex Carder. The three had their moments, but they also had problems coming up with big plays down the field. Northwestern isn't going to bomb away, and the timing patterns on the short to midrange throws could and should be thrown off by …
What To Watch Out For: Junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who's one national spotlight game away from being a lock for All-Big Ten honors. Consistent, he came up with four sacks in three of the first four games, not getting one against South Dakota State because he wasn't on the field much in a blowout. Against Arizona State he came up with two big sacks and a game-changing forced fumble, and he's been solid against the run, too, with 13 tackles. Quick, fast, and powerful, he should wreak havoc on the mediocre Northwestern tackles.
Of course, this is the Dan Persa game. Would he have been the difference last year had he not gotten hurt the week before? Probably not, considering how bad the Wildcat run defense was, but there were few hotter quarterbacks in America when he went down, throwing for 2,581 yards and 15 scores with just four picks, while running for 519 yards and two scores, in just nine games. With a flair for the dramatic, it would be just like Persa to come up with a huge win in his first game back, but for the offense to work and for NU to have a shot, he has to run like he did last year, and he has to be razor-sharp from the word go.
What Will Happen: There's another quarterback in this game. Nathan Scheelhaase ran for 97 yards in last year's win, and while he hasn't had to bomb away this year and he only has 224 rushing yards in the first four games, he's not making a slew of huge mistakes. Completing 71% of his passes, he's on his game, and he'll dink and dunk NU to death. Persa will be good, but he'll be better next week against Michigan.
CFN Prediction: Illinois 27 … Northwestern 17
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Illinois -7 O/U: 50
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