Scout's Chris Emma has been kind enough to provide answers to questions raised by Illinois fans regarding his Northwestern Wildcats.
Q. Will Dan Persa start the game? He sounds healthy, but will he have all the rust off? Do you think the NU coaches will prefer he not run as often? Do you expect both Persa and Colter to play?
A. Simply put—yes. This is the first time I've been able to answer that question with confidence. Prior to each of the first three games, Persa has needed to be cleared by the Northwestern medical staff. This is the first week he did not need clearance after getting the okay two weeks ago. Persa said he does not consider himself injured, and Pat Fitzgerald told me he is good to go.
How effective will he be? From what I've witness during the week in practice, Persa looks like he is back to his 2010 form. His arm strength and accuracy never went away, but the difference now is that his mobility is back. You may not see as many designed run plays for Persa, but he will definitely be a part of the offense. Also, sophomore quarterback Kain Colter—who started in lieu of Persa—will likely be a part of the offense in some form.
Q. What is the status of the NU running game? Do you expect the quarterbacks to be the primary ball carriers?
A. With Persa returning to the field, the quarterback will most likely not be the leading rusher for Saturday's game. In fact, the Wildcats' running backs will be relied on to take some pressure off the returning senior quarterback.
Northwestern has had great success with the ground game, as the offense was adjusted for the mobile Kain Colter, and the Wildcats became a run-first team. You may see a heavy dose of Mike Trumpy, Jacob Schmidt, and Treyvon Green this weekend as the Wildcats look to build balance around Dan Persa.
Q. Obviously, NU has been pointing to this game for a year. What psychological factors do you believe are most important to the players in terms of payback for last year?
A. As expected out of a veteran-laden team, the Wildcats were very quiet as far as trash-talking went. However, they did not hold back from expressing that they want the Land of Lincoln Trophy back in Evanston. It was clear from the tempo of practice this week that Northwestern is a hungry team.
That may be the X-factor for Saturday's game. When Martez Wilson declared Illinois was really Chicago's Big Ten team after last year's win, that statement stuck with the Wildcats. Northwestern will be hungry for revenge.
Q. Were you expecting to defeat Boston College but lose to Army? What surprises, good and bad, have you noticed this season?
A. Thus far, this has been a season of highs and lows for the Wildcats, and they're only three games into the season. Kain Colter looked spectacular in the first two games, but struggled against Army. Northwestern's defense has had some big plays, but has surrendered big plays, as well. The win against Boston College was a thrill, but the loss against Army was a shock.
After the Illinois game last season, Pat Fitzgerald talked about the "two teams" the Wildcats are. That has been the case again this season. Dan Persa will give Northwestern some stability on offense, but it's hard to indicate whether that is enough for a win on Saturday. We really haven't learned a whole lot about the Wildcats so far.
Q. What is your injury status? With the bye week, do you expect everyone to be healthy for the game?
A. Northwestern's weekly injury report indicated good news for the first time this season. Dan Persa was not listed, and the list of injured players was slim, as just three Wildcats will be sidelined for Saturday. Brian Arnfelt (leg) and Tony Jones (leg) are each dealing with week-to-week injuries, while Mike Bolden (foot) is not going to play Saturday.
Q. How would you rate the NU defense? Is it improved over a year ago?
A. It has been hard to measure what kind of defense Northwestern really has. It was a different scenario for the Illinois game last season, as Dan Persa was out and the defense could not get any rest. Meanwhile, Mikel Leshoure ran all over the Wildcats.
The offense has had some stability thus far in 2011, but even so, the defense has not shown many positive signs. Army had great success on the ground against the Wildcats' defense, and that led them to a victory. The Fighting Illini feature a different, yet even stronger rushing attack than the Black Knights do.
I would grade Northwestern as an ‘incomplete' through three games, but we will get answers on Saturday. Will they meet the challenge or be exposed, once again.
Q. What do you think are the keys to the game for Northwestern?
A. On offense, the key for Northwestern is simple: find a rhythm on offense. That means controlling the football, moving drives, and finishing the right way. They have not been able to do so this season. Facing a tough Illinois defense won't make that task any easier.
Defensively, the Wildcats are focused on stopping the run. If Jason Ford and Donovonn Young are able to have a fraction of the success that Leshoure had last season, it will be another long day for Northwestern's defense. They must contain the Illini's talented running back core.
Q. How do you think the two teams compare in terms of talent?
A. I'd say both teams are comparable in talent, and that goes to show with their recruiting classes. Both Northwestern and Illinois often recruit the same players, and each school comes out with a fairly similar recruiting class. Both Pat Fitzgerald and Ron Zook are two of the best coaches at developing players, so that is often why the Wildcats and Illini play above their recruiting rankings.
Q. Do you expect to see another game in Wrigley Field anytime soon?
A. It remains to be seen whether Northwestern will ever host another game at Wrigley Field. While the game was a tremendous success from a marketing standpoint, there were many troubles, and none of them involved Illinois' 519 rushing yards.
The obvious issue was the east endzone, which was deemed unplayable, just one day before the game. However, the other side walls along the field looked just as unsafe, if not, even more dangerous.
Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips has expressed interest in returning the Wildcats back to Wrigley Field, but that is only likely to happen if walls along Wrigley could be removed.
We wish to thank Chris Emma for his help preparing this report.