Illinois @ Northwestern: Preview

The University of Illinois football team visits the Northwestern Wildcats Saturday. It is a game of two similar teams who have suffered frustrating losses and are trying to gain one last victory to begin their offseason programs on a high note. Illinisports discusses Illini prospects in this report.

The Fighting Illini football team concludes its 2006 season when it travels to Evanston to square off with the Northwestern Wildcats Saturday in the 100th meeting between the two rivals. The Sweet Sioux Tomahawk is at stake as well as bragging rights within the state of Illinois for the victor.

Neither the Wildcats nor Illini have enjoyed seasons they wanted. And both are similar in many ways. Both teams use similar spread offenses. Both are young squads who have suffered from inconsistency and growing pains while trying to incorporate first year starters at quarterback. Both have coaches who are relatively new to their present positions with Ron Zook in his second year at Illinois and Pat Fitzgerald finishing his first tumultuous year after replacing the departed Randy Walker earlier this season. And both are coming off losses where they gave up multiple turnovers.

This game will not be televised, and only the staunchest supporters will care about the outcome as both teams reside at the bottom of Big Ten standings. But it is still an important game, and we hope the Illini take it seriously as a last opportunity to enjoy a victory. The Illini have been fun to watch this year, and frequent close games demonstrated much improvement over last year. But victories are what everyone wants.

For those who have complained the Illini offense and in particular freshman quarterback Juice Williams should perform better, a study of Northwestern's offense is valuable. The Wildcats have tried three new quarterbacks in a vain attempt to replace graduated star Brett Basanez. They appear to have settled on C. J. Backer, a third year sophomore who started the fall at third string and had little if any previous experience on the field. He has demonstrated some stability and occasionally a decent pass completion percentage. But Northwestern offensive coaches have lamented the fact they cannot always make major halftime adjustments due to the inexperience and confusion of their quarterbacks.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? There is only so much a young, inexperienced quarterback can learn, only so much detail he can retain while simultaneously worrying about the opponents' multiple defenses and the pressure they apply to him. The game eventually slows down for a quarterback as he matures into the role. But everything happens too fast for him to relax and perform his best as a nervous rookie. Both Juice Williams and C. J. Bacher could write volumes about their experiences this year, and we hope they both do just that so they can retain what they have learned for the future.

Both Illinois and Northwestern run similar offenses, so the strategies will be similar for both teams' offenses and defenses. The two are not exact mirror images of each other, but the comparisons are close. They both have excellent runners to compliment the passing game. Illini Pierre Thomas and Wildcat Tyrell Sutton can put great pressure on opposing defenses. Both teams have young receiving corps who occasionally struggle with dropped balls. And they both have had trouble containing the strong and fast defensive lines of top Big Ten teams.

The Illini defense is higher rated at this time, but Northwestern's spread offense can put tremendous pressure on Illinois with its diversity. It is difficult to defend everything at the same time, and the Wildcats will probably throw everything at them. The key for the Illini will be to take the game seriously and expend every bit of emotional energy they can muster to make their last game a memorable one.

Some of the most frustrating games in this writer's experience have been season finales with Northwestern. Frequently, the Illini have been favored only to see themselves lose to a fired up Wildcat team. There are always many Illinois players on the Northwestern roster, and they all seem to play their best games of the year against their state school. And Illinois has often struggled when favored, no matter how good they were at the time.

When you add inclement weather to the equation as is possible Saturday, it could be a difficult game for everyone to endure. If there are strong, cold winds and/or precipitation, Northwestern could have an even better chance to pull the upset as both teams struggle to move the ball consistently. Close games often favor the home team. To win, the Illini will have to summon all their strength and courage to overcome adversities and end the season on a high note. The game is winnable to the team that wants it most.

Looking back on all the offseason weight lifting and conditioning, all the hard and hot two-a-day practices during Camp Rantoul, and all the games this season that could have gone either way, Illini players have every reason to play an inspired game. It could serve as a stepping stone to what many feel might be a Bowl season in 2007. But if they just go through the motions to get the game over with, the Illini will lose.

Illinois holds a slight edge over Northwestern over the years, winning 51 times while losing 43 and tieing 5. But we would hazard a guess the Illini were favored at least 75% of the time. Upsets have marred the series from the beginning, and this category undoubtedly favors the Wildcats. Even when the Illini have won, it has often been an ugly win with the game much closer than alumni desired or expected.

This year's meeting promises to be a close one, with either team capable of pulling out the victory. Perhaps Jason Reda will make up for his missed field goal two years ago and win the game for the Illini this time around. Regardless, it will likely not be decided until the last few minutes.

Illinois has been so close so often this year, it sure would be nice to see that second Big Ten win. The players deserve it, and the fans need it to keep the faith while waiting for reinforcements to arrive and natural maturation to take its effect.

Go Illini!!!


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