Illini Face Surprising Northwestern

The Fighting Illini travel to Evanston Saturday in a final attempt to gain bowl eligibility. The Northwestern Wildcats have enjoyed an outstanding season. They already have secured a bowl spot, but they have reason to be fired up for the Illini. Besides the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk, the Wildcats seek to punish Illinois for keeping them out of a bowl game last season.

Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern Wildcats have enjoyed remarkable success, especially given the number of injuries to key players they have endured. Their 8-3 record includes wins at Iowa and Minnesota among their four road victories. Their four road wins have all come by 7 or fewer points, meaning they have good senior leadership. Twenty-three seniors will be playing their final game in Dyche Stadium Saturday.

They Wildcats are always fired up for Illinois. They have a number of Illinoisans on their roster, and historically they have taken the game more seriously. This year, there is also the incentive to achieve a ninth victory to guarantee a bigger bowl.

The Wildcats employ a spread offense and use a lot of short passes and quick hitters to confuse the defense and keep the chains moving. They aren't fancy, but they are experienced and consistent in what they do. The strength of the offense is their quarterbacks and receivers.

The Northwestern quarterback spot is a two-headed monster. Senior C. J. Bacher (6'-2", 205) is approaching 7,000 career passing yards and is third in Wildcat history for passing and fourth in total offense. When he sat out two games with injury, junior Mike Kafka (6'-3", 210) replaced him and earned Big Ten Offensive Player Of The Week in his first game. Illinois coach Ron Zook considers Kafka the best running quarterback in the Big Ten.

They list four receivers as starters. Ross Lane (6'-3", 195) is 7th on NU's all-time receiver's list with 152 catches. Fellow senior Eric Peterman (6'-1", 200) is ninth on that same list with 145. Rasheed Ward (5'-11", 180) gives them three receivers with more than 100 career receptions. These three are complimented by true freshman Jeremy Ebert (6'-0", 180). And there are several quality backups. Opponents find it tough to guard all four consistently.

The offensive line lost three starters from last season, and injuries have also set them back. Their five starters are all first-timers, yet they have given up only 17 sacks on the season. Al Netter (6'-6", 295), Keegan Kenneedy (6'-2", 290), Ben Burkett (6-4, 285), Doug Bartels (6'-4", 300) and Desmond Taylor (6'-3", 290) continue to improve as the season goes along. Netter, Burkett and Bartels are all redshirt freshmen.

NU lost its outstanding running back Tyrell Sutton to a career-ending injury partway through the season, and his backup has also been lost. Sophomore Stephen Simmons (5'-8", 175) is now the starter with redshirt freshman Jacob Schmidt (5'-10", 205) supporting him.

Defensively, the Wildcats are more than respectable. They are in the top 51 teams in the country in 6 defensive categories: scoring defense (31); rushing defense (44); sacks (27); tackles for loss (28); pass efficiency defense (38); and total defense (51). They are 23rd in red zone defense and 29th in defensive 3rd down efficiency. They have held 4 opponents to less than 100 rushing yards. They are especially good in the fourth quarter.

Leading the way for the Wildcats' new attacking style are defensive end Corey Wootton (6'-7", 270) and defensive tackle John Gill ((6'-3", 300). Wootton has 14 tackles for loss on the year, and Gill was named to the preseason Bronko Nagurski and Outland Trophy watch lists. Illinois coach Ron Zook has great respect for both. Kevin Mims (6'-3", 265) starts at the other end and Adam Hahn (6'-4", 295) joins Gill at tackle.

Nate Williams ((6'-2", 235) took over for the injured Malcolm Arrington at middle linebacker and has performed well. Prince Kwateng (6'-2", 230) and Quentin Davie (6'-4", 215) join Williams behind the line. Kwateng is second on the team with 82 tackles.

Juniors Brendan Smith (6'-1" 205) and Brad Phillips (6'-4", 210) are both outstanding safeties. Smith is especially talented according to Zook. They provide strength up the middle. Cornerbacks Sherrick McManis (6'-1", 185) are no slouches either.

Northwestern is on a roll and will be difficult to beat on their home turf.

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