The Northwestern Wildcats are always an intelligent, disciplined, fundamentally sound team under the tutelage of head coach Pat Fitgzerald. Historically, they have been posed problems for Illinois as they are often more fired up for their contests. This Saturday, the shoe could be on the other foot.
NW ended the Illini's bowl hopes with a conquest in Evanston last November, a game in which the Illini played poorly. Illinois hopes to reverse that result this year. The Wildcats are coming off a major upset of the Hawkeyes in Iowa City, so they may be vulnerable emotionally.
Regardless, Illinois coach Ron Zook knows it will be a war.
"They're coming off a very big win over Iowa. This is a typical Northwestern football team, a very well-coached team offensively. They will obviously present another big challenge for us.
"No question, it's a rivalry game. One thing you have to remember is that rivalry games were started long before I was around. They've been going for a long time. Our players are getting up to speed on what this game means."
It is also a Trophy Game. The Sweet Sioux Tomahawk trophy formerly awarded the victor was retired after last season, to remain in the hands of the Wildcats. The new Land of Lincoln trophy is the new prize, and the Illini want to be the first to possess it.
"You want it every year, but this is the first time. I've seen pictures, but I have not seen it. I've seen pictures and heard talk about it. It's shaped like Abraham Lincoln's hat. No question, we'd like to bring it home."
Northwestern features a wide-open offensive style with quarterbacks who can both run and pass. Senior Mike Kafka (6'-3", 220) has played like a star when healthy. A hamstring problem limited his running last week against Iowa, and backup Dan Persa, a 6'-1", 210 pound sophomore played well while sharing the position. Either way, Zook knows to expect quality quarterbacking.
"I can remember going into the high school at St. Rita and trying to talk to (Kafka), and his mind was made up. Obviously he's had a great career and did the right thing for him. He's made unbelievable progress. Last year we knew he was a good runner, now he's a great runner and a great thrower. He's done a great job and they've done a great job with him as well.
"Last year I can remember talking about Kafka, that you figure he's going to run the football, which is what they did last year. When they bring in the other guy now it's kind of what they do. It's more of a running offense, not that he doesn't throw, because he does throw. They bring him in in the same types of situations.
"They had some issues with their backup (Persa) having a hand injury, but I guess the X-rays were negative, so there are no issues with that. They don't change a lot other than what they've done when everybody's healthy."
With quality leadership at quarterback, the Northwestern offense has fluorished.
"They're second in the Big Ten in passing, they're ninth in the country in third downs, 29th in the nation in red zone. Their quarterback is their leading rusher. Now what do you do? You get in there and try to put a pass rush on him and all of a sudden, boom he's gone. He's running, he's scrambling. It puts a tremendous amount of pressure and strain on defensive backs. Their receivers just get open."
Each year, the Wildcats utilize possession-type receivers who know how to exploit defenses and catch everything in their vicinity, and this year is no exception. Even after losing a couple great ones to graduation, others have stepped up to replace them.
Senior Zeke Markshausen (5'-11, 185) is second in the conference in receiving with 70 catches and 633 receiving yards. Senior Andrew Brewer (6'-3", 215) caught 8 passes against Indiana and has five touchdowns. Drake Dunsmore has 34 receptions and Sidney Stewart (6'-1", 185) 23. They usually employ four receivers at a time. Running backs Scott Concannon (5'-10", 190) and Stephen Simmons (5'-8", 185) share time as both runners and pass receivers.
WILL linebacker Nate Bussey agrees that NW is tough to defend.
"They're gonna try to put a lot of pressure on us by throwing the ball and running it at the same time. We're gonna just do the best we can and be a good defense.
"As a defense, we've got to keep an eye on our man in coverage. And we've got to stop the run. That way, when they do pass, we'll be able to stop them. By us linebackers having to cover receivers, we've just got to use proper technique."
The Northwestern defense is trying to top a record set last year with fewest rushing yards allowed. So far, they are giving up 117.1 yards per game. The Illinois running game is strong, so it should be a good test for both. Zook has great respect for the Wildcat defense.
"Defensively, they are a four-three under team, more of an under-team than an over-team. There's no question that [Corey] Wootton is a big-time player at defensive end. Hugh [Thornton] will have his hands full. They play with unbelievable emotion. They're great tacklers. Not a real big pressure team, but they will pressure you.
"A lot of times I judge a defense by the kind of mistakes they make, the way they tackle, those kinds of things. All of those guys are very sound and play extremely well. They play hard. They tackle well. Tackling is emotion. Tackling is playing with an attitude. They've done that."
Joining Wootton (6'-7", 280) in the defensive line are end Vince Browne (6'-5", 265) and tackles Corbin Bryant (6'-4", 285) and Adam Hahn (6'-4", 290). Their linebackers are strong as well. Middle linebacker Nate Williams (6'-2", 235) is flanked by David Arnold (6'-1", 220) and Davie Quentin (6'-4", 230). Their secondary has been injury prone this season, so nine different players have started at different times.
NW also has a top place kicker in Stefan Demos. He is ranked among the top twenty kickers in the country and has converted 14-16 field goals so far this season. He also punts and kicks off.
Despite six early losses, the Illini are entering this contest in good spirits. The players have been more upbeat and talkative after practices than any other time this season. And except for the uncertain status of quarterback Juice Williams, everyone appears to be rounding into shape for this game.
Zook is grateful his players have experienced some success and hopes it continues.
"I'm really happy. It's kind of fun to be able to see our players enjoy the last couple weeks and kind of have a little looseness about them. Although they understand this is a big challenge, it's good to be able to see them celebrate.
"I think the locker room celebrations have been special, and they're something that we'll obviously remember for a long time. They obviously understand that it's only two games. This is a big week coming up."
Last year, it appeared some of the Illini just wanted to get the season over with. Senior center Eric Block senses a much better approach this year.
"I think so. I think we have a better attitude this year. I watched the film from last year, and I didn't want to watch it at all. It was a terrible game. It was a sloppy game all around for us last year. And give Northwestern credit, they played great and we didn't for whatever reason. There was just something about that game we didn't play well."
Running back Mikel Leshoure thinks the team wants to make up for its poor performance last year.
"There's always a desire to come back and beat a team that kind of stole a win from you. I think we could easily have won that game last year if we wouldn't have beat ourselves and made some of the mistakes we made. We're pushing the issue to just go out and play and don't think as much. If we do that, we'll be able to go out and execute our offense and win the game."
Leshoure knows it won't be easy, but he also likes the idea of being the first team to win the new trophy.
"We want that trophy real bad. We want this win for our season and a chance to be bowl eligible. But this is a big game. These guys play their best ball against us."
Freshman safety Walter Aikens says the team will be ready.
"They try to confuse you, but we've been studying their game plans. I feel we're ready. If we played today, we'd be ready today. They're good athletes, and they've got some talent. If we do what we need to do, then the game is ours."
Of course, that is true in most games. No one is making predictions. As Zook reminds, the closeness of the lengthy series between the schools requires all-out effort no matter what.
"I think when you play a game like this, a lot of times you can take the records and you can take the circumstances and you can take the injuries and all those things and throw them by the side. It's the team that goes out there on that particular day and has the fewest mistakes and plays the hardest."