Land of Lincoln battle pits Wildcats against Illini

Big Ten rivals will collide in Champaign on Saturday, as the hometown Illinois Fighting Illinois, ranked 24th in the nation, play host to the Northwestern Wildcats.

Northwestern opened the season with back-to-back victories over Boston College and FCS foe Eastern Illinois. Unfortunately for coach Pat Fitzgerald, his Wildcats dropped a 21-14 decision to Army back on September 17. The team has had two weeks to prepare for this week's battle and is undoubtedly eager to get back on the field.

Sometimes a win feels a bit like a loss, and that was indeed the case for Illinois after last weekend's closer-than-expected, 23-20 victory over Western Michigan.

"I walked in the locker room and it was very somber," said Illinois head coach Ron Zook after the win. "A lot of people may not agree with this, but sometimes you have to go through games like that. There are a lot of times that teams would have lost that game."

Sure, the performance wasn't perfect, but the Illini are 4-0 for the first time since 1951, so it is hard to be negative entering this conference opener.

Illinois owns a 53-46-5 series advantage over Northwestern, which includes a 48-27 romp over the Wildcats last season.

Northwestern simply didn't play well offensively against Army last time out, finishing with only 14 points and 309 total yards. Starting quarterback Kain Colter clearly struggled, completing 12-of-23 passes for only 89 yards. Sure, he added a team-high 57 rushing yards in the affair, but the offense lacked rhythm and relied far too heavily on short passes.

"First off, I just want to say I solely take the loss today," said a visibly disappointed Colter. "I 100 percent feel that was my fault today."

Fitzgerald eventually inserted redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Siemian into the game, and he completed 5-of-7 passes for 105 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions in limited duty.

"We just really felt like it might give us a shot in the arm," said Fitzgerald on his decision to put Siemian into the game. "He has been practicing well and we weren't having quite the success that we thought we could have throwing the ball so we made changes."

On a positive note, Dan Persa, who has missed the last three games with an Achilles injury, is expected back this weekend, and it will be interesting to see how Fitzgerald uses his quarterbacks.

The quarterbacks could have gotten more help from the Northwestern defense, which permitted a completely one-dimensional Army offense to run for 381 yards and three touchdowns while churning out 5.1 yards per carry. The fact that the Wildcats lost to a team that completed only one pass for six yards is clearly disappointing.

Overall this season, Northwestern is generating 26.7 ppg and 390.0 total ypg while permitting 19.7 ppg and 394.3 total ypg to foes. The strength of the Wildcat offense is the ground attack, which accounts for 220.7 ypg. Colter has rushed for 237 yards and four touchdowns. As a passer, he has connected on 65 percent of his throws, but his average completion of 10 yards needs to improve.

Switching focus to Illinois, it has been a productive offensive team to date, generating 32.2 ppg and 423.8 total ypg. The Illini are led by quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who has completed 71.2 percent of his passes for 637 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. The team's second-leading rusher, Scheelhaase has also picked up 224 yards and two scores on the ground, while Jason Ford has four rushing touchdowns to his credit. The top pass catcher for Illinois is A.J. Jenkins, who has hauled in 28 receptions for 365 yards and two scores.

Defensively, the Illini are limiting foes to just 13.0 ppg and 287.2 total ypg, impressive numbers to say the least. Stopping the run has been no problem for Illinois, which is holding opponents to 56.5 rushing ypg at a lowly clip of 2.0 ypc. Against the pass, the Illini have twice as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns allowed (three).

In the win over Western Michigan last week, Illinois compiled 463 total yards, 296 of which came on the ground. Troy Pollard rushed for 133 yards, while Donovonn Young posted 100 rushing yards and a touchdown.

The Illini defense permitted just two touchdowns to WMU and held the Broncos to 35 rushing yards on 21 attempts. Illinois held the Broncos to 4-of-15 success on third-down conversion attempts.

"We have a lot more improvement to do," said Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus. "Confidence-wise, it's up a little bit. We can't get big-headed about anything. All we have to do is buckle down and play week after week."