Illinois head coach Ron Zook knows Northwestern will be a true test for his 4-0 team Saturday.
"It's a new season; we're in the Big Ten. Obviously, this game is the first Big Ten game, it's our natural rivalry, and it's Homecoming. So there's gonna be an awful lot of excitement going on around that."
The Wildcats are buoyed by the return of star quarterback Dan Persa from Achilles tendon surgery. Last year Persa proved a great runner while hitting an amazing 74% of his passes before his injury. Pegged as a Heisman Trophy hopeful before the season, it is unknown how effective he will be since no one has seen him in action. Zook assumes he will be at his best.
"They're getting one of their best players back in their quarterback. I'm sure he's biting at the bit. He's a great competitor, he's a great player. It's going to be a great test for us; the defense is going to have to show up again.
"We've got to assume he's going to run the same way. A running quarterback causes the defense issues, particularly when you can throw the football. You've got another person to defend as a running back. Auburn won the national championship with a very similar type of offense."
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning studies every possible scenario. Kain Colter leads the Wildcat offense when Persa isn't available, and they have both similarities and differences. It can become confusing, to say the least.
"Statistically, they may run the ball a little bit more. They may or they may not. Sometimes you can get mesmerized. You've just got to do what you do. We've broken down the games that Persa played last year, and we've broken down the other games they've played. We try to compare similarities.
"The experience level Persa has about knowing where everyone is supposed to be in the passing game, not that the other young man isn't an adequate passer, he's a little bit more adept at what they want to do offensively as far as throwing the ball. The young man (Colter) runs the ball and runs the offense well. We do notice differences, but we're trying not to be caught up in that. We're trying to defend what they do.
"We try to have a plan for when it rains, when it's windy. We have a plan for if we can't stop the run or if we can't stop the pass. That's part of the weekly preparation...what if, what if. The negative of that is you can 'what-if' yourself to death. You just try to do the best you can."
Northwestern uses a spread offense effectively. Short passes to a variety of receivers allow openings for the running game to prosper. The Illini have experience this year against similar offenses.
"We got a lot of practice at that last week, and the week before, and the week before," Koenning reminds. "They know how to run the zone read stuff as good as anybody in college football. They know schemes they probably haven't shown. We're gonna have to just do what we do."
The complexity of the offense can be hard to defend.
"The thing about the option game, whether it's speed option or zone read option or the veer that they run a few times, and then they've got receivers in pitch phase, bubble screens, and then you throw in all the empties, the thing that all that does, it kind of forces you to be more simple. That's what option's done forever.
"You can't do so many different things. You can't give up contain. You have to have one guy on the quarterback, one on the dive, one on the pitch, one in the alley, etc. They run a load option. You have to have inside load and outside load option. It forces you to be simple."
Keith Gilmore's defensive line must be prepared to defend the option attack. He explains what is needed to contain the Wildcat offense.
"We've always got to read our keys. You never know what a team is gonna do. One guy's a better runner, the other guy is pretty much a better passer. We're gonna be prepared for both.
"Persa hasn't played, but he is supposedly the #1 quarterback in the Big 10. He's gonna throw the ball a little bit better. Coming off the injury, I don't know how much they're gonna run him. You've got to be assignment sound. Every guy's got to do his job."
Illini coaches have warned their players not to let memories of last year's offensive explosion against NU interfere with game preparations. Northwestern may employ a basic defense, but it will be fired up to prevent long touchdowns according to quarterback coach Jeff Brohm.
"They're a defense that tries to play sound football. They're hard-nosed, they try not to give up the big play. They don't pressure a whole lot, but they will come after you a little bit.
"They're a team that makes you move the ball down the field and earn touchdowns. It's a basic 4-3, normal coverage. They make you try to sustain drives, and they try to make you turn the ball over."
Brohm knows the Wildcats have pointed to this game all year, after the Illini embarrassed them in Wrigley Field last November.
"We know they're gonna come in here ready to play. Last year without question we were physical and ran the ball unbelievably. We know we don't have that running back (Mikel Leshoure) right now, so guys have to step up and make plays in both the running game and passing game and try to find a way to win. That's the way this team is. No matter who steps up, somebody's got to do it."
Northwestern will use their diverse attack to keep the Illini off balance. They will complete a lot of passes, so limiting them to short gainers will help. Containing the option running game and forcing the pass will prove beneficial also. Offensively, the Illini must sustain drives and continue their mastery of red zone offense. It could be a high-scoring game.
Both sides have tried to encourage a rivalry between the two schools, and it appears to be working. Several Illini players and coaches share their thoughts on the budding rivalry.
* Nathan Scheelhaase: "If you're not fired up for this game as a fan or an Illini player or coach, there's something wrong. I think anytime you get two teams that are on the rise, rivalries build, especially with two teams in the same state. So I definitely could say a rivalry is brewing."
* Paul Petrino: "It was pretty easy to pick up on it right away. The players enjoy playing somebody they don't like and don't like you, so that makes it a lot of fun. They don't like us, so we'll go out on the field and find out what's going on.
"They don't recruit our type of guys. That would irritate me. It's calling you something, I don't know. Read between the lines. We'll be ready to play."
* Troy Pollard: "It's a big rivalry, an in-state rivalry. I'm not an Illinois guy, but I feel like we need to win. I know it's gonna be a tough, hard-fought game. They're gonna play hard, and we're gonna play hard. We don't take nobody lightly. Northwestern's a physical team, so we have to match their intensity."
* Ian Thomas: "One word for this rivalry is probably 'intense.' We come ready every year. It's two Illinois teams playing each other, and we both want to be the best team in the state.
"We've kind of put the last four games behind us. We're just looking forward. We want this game; this is the biggest game of the season for us. We're gonna come out hard and try to hit them every play."
* Graham Pocic: "It's a rivalry game. I'm from the same area as a lot of guys for Northwestern, so bragging rights when you go home. More importantly, it would be our fifth win in a row. We want to be 5-0, and we have to get through Northwestern to do that.
"They're gonna be prepared, and we're gonna have to prepare just as much as they did, probably even more. As an offensive line, we've watched a lot of film. We watched last year's games and this year's games. I don't think they're gonna out-prepare us."
* Whitney Mercilus: "They're definitely fired up about this game, and we're fired up too. There's gonna be a lot of tension in the air. You can cut it with a knife. We don't want them to win in our house or get payback for what happened last season. We're gonna have to focus. It comes down to which team makes less mistakes."
* Evan Wilson: "We're gonna be the most prepared team we can be. It's the Big 10, so it's gonna be fun. I think it adds to the rivalry with everybody being good. Since I got here, I kind of fell in love with it. I love rivalry games. You can tell in practice everybody is a little more fired up to go out and play them pretty good.
"The first thing I notice is it starts getting colder. Once Big 10 play begins, everything's amped up a little bit. Things are a little faster, everybody hits a little bit harder. You've got to elevate your game to match the others. It's fun."
This will likely be the Illini's stiffest test of the season so far. If their actions match their words, they will be happy Saturday evening and can enjoy the rest of Homecoming weekend. But they will know they've been in a battle, one way or the other.