Northwestern @ Illinois Preview

Saturday is Senior Day in Champaign, and it is the final game of the season. Illinois and Northwestern will be battling for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk Trophy in this battle for state supremacy. IlliniBoard.com's Brad Leshyn previews the Northwestern Wildcats.

The 2005 season comes to a merciful end this weekend as the Illini battle Northwestern for the coveted – okay, not really – Sweet Sioux Tomahawk Trophy. After the euphoria of the early two-game winning streak and an impressive, albeit losing, effort against California the Illini were expected to at least battle, if not upset, some of their Big Ten foes. Instead, a 62-14 thrashing at the hands of a once white-hot Michigan State began the downhill spiral Illini fans have become accustomed to the last few years. Losing 22 of their last 23 conference games does not provide a lot of optimism heading into the finale, especially considering Northwestern is known for their offense and the Illini defense is just known to be plain offensive. They have surrendered 397 points, which is on pace to be the worst defense in school history. The previous ‘high' was in 2003, when the defense gave up 398, but it took them 12 games to do so. On the bright side, freshmen Britt Miller, Kyle Hudson, and Rashard Mendenhall, among others, have shown glimpses of ability, and look to be among the leaders of the Illini's hopeful resurgence. Coach Zook broke down and cried after last week's loss to Purdue, as the frustration of losing finally caught up to him. He seemingly has the energy, enthusiasm, and, most importantly, recruiting skill to return this program to respectability, but the road still appears long. Thankfully, optimism returns to campus Friday night, as the Illini basketball season commences, and one can only hope the feeling someday returns to their football brethren.

Head Coach
Randy Walker is yet another successful head coach who is a product of the "Cradle of Coaches." An alumnus and former head coach of Miami (Ohio), as well as a former college teammate of Ron Zook, Walker has spent the last seven seasons in Evanston after nine at his alma mater. A 30-year coaching veteran, he left Miami as the program's winningest coach with a 59-35-5 record. He has won 36 games for the Wildcats, and is one win short of overtaking Ara Parseghian and Dick Hanley to claim sole possession of second-place behind Pappy Waldorf, who won 49 games from 1935-46. While the death of Rashidi Wheeler prior to the 2001 season put a lingering cloud (one that is still lingering) over his tenure and the program as a whole, he has rebounded to become the first NU coach to win six or more games in three straight years (2003-05) since Dick Hanley did so between1929-31. He's also the first NU coach to win six or more games four times since C.M. Hollister all the way back in 1899-1902 and the only coach in school history to defeat all Big Ten opponents at least once during his tenure. His spread offense has kept opposing defenses on their heels since his arrival in Evanston, but his attack is still centered around the running game, as Tyrell Sutton this season became the 25th 1,000-yard rusher in Walker's 30 years of college coaching.

Offensive Preview
The nation's ninth best offense (482.4 yards per game) will be taking to the Memorial Stadium turf, and the engineer of this machine is senior QB Brett Basanez, who will make his 45th (including 39 in a row) this week. Basanez has rewritten virtually all of NU's passing records and needs only 76 passing yards to become only the 36th player in NCAA Division 1-A history to surpass 10,000 career passing yards. He is college football's active leading career passer, although USC's Matt Leinart is only 29 yards behind. Against the stingy Ohio State defense last week, Basanez managed only 121 yards through the air, breaking a string of 10 straight games with at least 200. He's also fairly nimble afoot, with 306 rushing yards and five TDs.

The receiving corps is deep and is led by WR Shaun Herbert. He leads the ‘Cats with 68 receptions, 760 yards, and five TDs. His 6.8 catches per game are third best in the Big Ten and he has twice been named NU's "Offensive Big Playmaker" in 2005. Jonathan Fields is second on the club with 50 catches, but he has yet to reach the end zone. Against Ohio State he topped 1,000 yards for his career and needs only two more catches to reach 100 for his career. The third member of the potent WR triad is Mark Philmore, who has 43 catches, 555 yards, and four TDs. Despite missing the Arizona State game due to personal reasons, he has emerged as the go-to receiver the past three weeks with 23 catches for 291 yards and two scores.

The breakout star and slam-dunk choice for Big Ten Freshman of the Year has been RB Tyrell Sutton. Brandon Roberson was expected to start the season opener against Ohio, but an injury forced Walker to turn to Sutton who made an immediate impact with 104 yards in his first collegiate action. He more than doubled that with 214 yards in his second game vs. Northern Illinois, and a future star was born. At 117.8 ypg he is the eight leading rusher in the nation and he leads all freshmen nationally in rushing yards and TDs with 18. For a freshman, he's also shown a great feel for the passing game, as he is fourth on the team with 32 receptions. Opening holes for Sutton is a line led by two gigantic tackles. RT Zach Strief, a pre-season first-team All Big Ten choice, stands at 6'7" and 335 pounds, while LT Dylan Thiry tops him at 6'8". As a unit, the line helps the Wildcats run for 179.9 ypg while allowing only nine sacks – the third best total in the Big Ten.

Defensive Preview
The defense is led by Butkus and Bednarik Award semifinalist and the school's all-time leading tackler, Tim McGarigle. McGarigle will not be deemed the nation's best linebacker, as the Butkus list was trimmed down to three, but his 12.9 tackles per game is second best in the Big Ten and fifth-best nationally. A first-quarter tackle against Iowa gave him the school record, and through Ohio State he has amassed 518 stops in his career. His 6 ½ TFL are tops on the team, as are his 2.0 sacks. On top of all that, he's picked off a pass and broken up four others and also leads the team with two fumble recoveries. His partners in crime are Nick Roach and Adam Kadela. Roach is the second leading tackler with 67, and he led the Wildcats with 10 stops against the Buckeyes despite playing with a bad back. Kadela's 56 stops are third on the club, 3 ½ of which have come behind the line of scrimmage.

Up front, DT Barry Cofield is the anchor and leads all defensive linemen with 49 tackles and 6.0 sacks. His five PBU are second on the team as do his six QB hurries. His six stops against the Buckeyes earned him Player of the Game honors from ABC. Trevor Schultz teams with Cofield on the interior and has 42 tackles and three TFL on the year. The ends are manned by freshman Kevin Mims and sophomore Mark Koehn. Mims started the first two games at DE before being moved inside vs. Arizona State. He has since moved back outside, and last week notched five tackles and ½ TFL at Ohio State. Koehn is tied with McGarigle for the team lead with two sacks, one of which came against the Buckeyes.

The secondary, while allowing 276.4 ypg, has been plenty opportunistic as they have helped the Wildcats pick off 16 passes (among 25 total turnovers forced), which is seventh-most nationally. Leading the way is CB Marquice Cole, whose five picks are a Big Ten best. His pick in the final minute helped seal a 34-29 win over Purdue. He's also dangerous as a punt returner, as he averages 27.0 yards per return, which includes and 81-yarder vs. Northern Illinois. Deante Battle lines up at the opposite corner and is one of three DBs with at least 40 tackles. He had six stops last week and picked off his first, and only, career pass vs. Purdue. Herschel Henderson began the season at corner, but has lined up at free safety the last six contests. He leads the team with six PBU and is second with three interceptions. Reggie McPherson has seen significant action at strong safety the last two weeks as eye and rib injuries have limited Frederic Tarver, who was promoted to the starting lineup after freshman Brendan Smith's season-ending knee injury. McPherson had six tackles against OSU and recovered a critical onside kick that led to the winning score in the dramatic win over Iowa two weeks ago.

Final Analysis
On paper, this one looks like a mismatch, and as with most Illini games in 2005, the paper is probably right. The Wildcats do allow 487.2 yards per game and 6.3 yards per play, so the Illini should, in theory, be able to move the football. However, the offense is dead last in the league with only 346.1 ypg. QB Tim Brasic struggled mightily last week against Purdue's Big Ten worst pass defense, and backup Chris Pazan didn't fare any better. Northwestern also surrenders 210.8 ypg on the ground, so this week seems like as good a week as any to try and run the football. Pierre Thomas has been underused all season and should be able to find plenty of running room if given the chance. The question is: will he? The Wildcats should be able to call their shots offensively, however, and behind Basanez and Sutton will head back to Evanston a 40-14 winner.

Random Musings From My Couch
  • While you can only play who's on your schedule, this week's game against the Carolina Panthers will tell us truly how good this Bears team is.
  • The wind carrying Robbie Gould's first field goal attempt all the way across the field makes me laugh every time I see it.
  • The much-maligned NFC North has more collective wins than both the NFC West and the AFC East, which has – Gasp!- the ‘greatest team in the history of professional sports,' the New England Patriots. Worst division? I don't think so.
  • Prediction, Part I: Texas will defeat USC in the Rose Bowl and win the national championship. But, Vince Young still is not an NFL quarterback.
  • Prediction, Part II: now that college basketball season is upon us, the Illini will go 12-4 in conference and finish second in the Big Ten, behind Michigan State.

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