The Wildcats advertised themselves as "Chicago's team" last year, so it isn't surprising they took umbrage when Illinois handed them an embarrassing defeat in Wrigley Field last November and claimed the title for itself. They have focused all year on beating the Illini, and Saturday they get their chance.
Former Wildcat star linebacker Pat Fitzgerald has a 36-30 record since becoming head coach in 2006. He has led them to four straight post season bowl berths and is expecting another one this season. He has sufficient veteran talent on hand to do just that, including 10 fifth-year seniors.
The Wildcats have become known as the "Cardiac Cats" for their ability to win close games. They are 29-9 in their last 38 games decided by 7 points or less. They were 6-2 in such games in 2009, enjoyed 5 close wins in 2010 and one so far in 2011.
Playing without star quarterback Dan Persa through the first three games, NU defeated Boston College but lost a close one to Army, both on the road. They are 2-1 on the young season and have had two weeks to prepare for Illinois.
Persa (6'-1", 210) is now ready to play his senior season after recovering from Achilles surgery last November. He has career totals of 2805 passing yards and 17 touchdowns, and his 74% passing accuracy last year was one of the best in the country. He is also an outstanding runner, although it remains to be seen how much running he will be asked to do against the Illini.
Persa's importance to the Wildcats cannot be overstated. He was their Heisman Trophy candidate prior to the injury. A top student and community leader, Persa is on the Davey O'Brien, Manning Award and Walter Camp National Player of the Year Award watch lists.
Sophomore Kain Colter (6'-0", 190) will likely see time also. The starter the first three games has passed for 390 yards and one touchdown on 39 for 60 accuracy. He has thrown just one interception. He has also rushed 48 times to lead the team with 237 yards and four touchdowns.
The Illini will likely face at least three running backs. Senior Jacob Schmidt (5'-10", 205) is listed as the starter, although sophomore Mike Trumpy (6'-1", 210) was the starter before an injury slowed him. He is now listed either/or with sophomore Adonis Smith (5'-11", 200) as the backup. The three have around 100 yards each on the season.
Northwestern employs a spread offense, so it uses a lot of receivers. Seniors Jeremy Ebert (6'-0", 195) and Charles Brown (5'-11", 185) are listed as starters, along with junior Demetrius Fields (6'-0", 210). Sophomore Rashad Lawrence (6'-2", 190) and freshman Christian Jones (6'-3", 225) share time at the "Z" receiver. Ebert has 10 receptions for 162 yards and 2 TDs on the young season, while Fields has caught 7 passes for 77 yards, and Lawrence 7 for 63.
Senior Drake Dunsmore (6'-3", 235), who has six catches for 50 yards, is listed as the "Superback," a tight end/H-back position. He is backed up by freshman Jack Konopka (6'-5", 285). Sophomores Venric Mark (5'-8", 175), Mike Jensen (6'-0", 180) and Drew Moulton (5'-11", 180) are backup receivers. Mark doubles as a dangerous punt and kick returner.
Ebert is on the Biletnikoff Watch List. He is NU's active leader in career receiving yards. He and Dunsmore are both over 1000 yards for their careers. Dunsmore is on the John Mackey Watch List.
Four line starters are veterans. Right tackle is junior Patrick Ward (6'-7", 310), right guard is senior Ben Burkett (6'-4", 290), and redshirt freshman Brandon Vitabile (6'-3", 300) plays center. The left guard is manned by junior Brian Mulroe (6'-4", 295), and Outland Trophy candidate Al Netter (6'-6", 310) is the senior left tackle.
Three seniors provide strength for the defensive line. Defensive tackles Niko Mafuli (6'-3", 305) and Jack DiNardo (6'-4", 295) are joined by end Vince Browne (6'-5", 265). Brown is popular on the watch lists, boasting the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Rotary Lombardi Award, Ted Hendricks Award and Chuck Bednarik Award. Sophomore end Tyler Scott (6'-4", 265) joins them.
The linebacking corps is also experienced. Seniors Ben Johnson (6'-3", 225) and Bryce McNaul (6'-3", 240) are the SAM and WIll linebackers respectively. Junior David Nwabuisi (6'-1", 240) starts at MIKE. McNaul leads the team with 28 tackles. He also has an interception. Nwabuisi has 21 stops including a sack.
Three starting defensive backs are also seniors. The cornerbacks are Jordan Mabin and Jeravin Matthews (5'-11", 180). Brian Peters (6'-4", 215) is joined by redshirt freshman Ibraheim Campbell (5'-11", 205) at the two safety spots. Matthews has 20 tackles on the season.
Sophomore Brandon Williams has a 39.3 yard punting average through three games. Sophomore placekicker Jeff Budzien has made one of three field goals.
The Wildcats are smart and well coached. Give them two weeks to prepare, and they can compete with anyone. If they are as fired up as most claim they will be, the Illini will be hard-pressed to win their Homecoming game Saturday.