Inside The Matchup

The Sports Xchange goes in-depth on the matchup between the Wildcats and Fighting Illini

KEYS TO THE GAME:

— For Northwestern: Get Illinois' offense off the field. The Wildcats can't allow the Illini to control the clock with their running game the way they did against Army. Northwestern's spread offense could give the Illinois defense trouble with its quick throws to slot receivers.

— For Illinois: Adjust the defense. Western Illinois didn't waste time with seven-step drops that allow the Illini pass rush to take effect but threw short, quick passes that not only moved the ball, but owned the clock. The offense wants to spread the field to keep Northwestern from stacking its defense against the run.

SCOUTING THE TEAMS:

With QB Dan Persa expected to be back at the controls this week, Northwestern regains the ability to attack vertically as well as horizontally. Sophomore QB Kain Colter was excellent on the run, but his arm isn't as strong or as accurate as the nation's reigning completion-percentage champ. Persa's return allows NU's deep receiving corps to have a bigger impact on games. Expect Jeremy Ebert, who scored twice against Army, and senior superback Drake Dunsmore to catch passes early and often in the Wildcats' spread offense.

Northwestern thought it addressed last year's horrendous problems against the run, but Army opened up old wounds with its 381 rushing yards last week. Illinois doesn't run the same system as Army, which is a good thing for the Wildcats, but NU needs to be much more physical than it was during last year's debacle against the Illini. DT Jack DiNardo's return should help inside. Redshirt freshman LB Collin Ellis hasn't played a down of college football, but he should be an upgrade due to his quickness and his eagerness to make plays.

Illinois' offense hasn't put a lot of the points on the board the last two weeks (40 total) and there have been too many three-and-out possessions to suit coordinator Paul Petrino, but the Illini have shown a knack for adapting when defenses take things away. For example, Western Michigan loaded the box and took away Illinois' inside runs last week. The Illini used motion to overload one side of the field and ripped off a few huge runs using the option. Illinois also threw six passes to the tight ends last week, which ought to open up more room for WRs A.J. Jenkins (28 catches, 365 yards, 2 TDs) and Darius Millines.

Illinois went with a 3-3-5 alignment on defense the last two weeks to slow down Arizona State's and Western Michigan's pass-heavy offenses, but the Illini trotted out different tricks for each team. One constant? The pass rush brought by DEs Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan. They have combined for 5.5 sacks the last two weeks. Jonathan Brown, Ian Thomas and Trulon Henry have developed into an excellent linebacking crew, and CB Tavon Wilson heads an improving secondary.

FAST FACTS:

Wildcats: From 1999 to 2008, this Land of Lincoln Trophy game served as the Big Ten finale for both teams. This marks the first time since 1984 that the Wildcats and Illini will open Big Ten play against each other. ... With senior QB Dan Persa ready to play Saturday at Illinois, Northwestern finally gets to play with a full deck on offense. Persa missed the first three games to ensure his healed right Achilles' tendon was ready to go. Top RB Mike Trumpy sat out Game 2 with a concussion. RB Adonis Smith, the team's second-best runner, missed Game 3 against Army with a leg injury. ... Northwestern's defense doesn't need to be reminded how last year's game against Illinois turned out. Illini RB Mikel Leshoure set a school record with 330 rushing yards as the victors piled up 519 yards on the ground. ... Northwestern's special teams haven't exactly been special to date. Redshirt sophomore Jeff Budzien, who won the kicking job during the fall after a tight battle with Steve Flaherty, has made just one of his three field goal attempts and missed a 26-yarder on the final play of the first half against Army that would have given NU a 10-7 lead at the break. Redshirt sophomore P Brandon Williams, who enjoyed a solid season last year, is averaging just 39.3 yards on his 14 punts. That includes three touchbacks.

Illini: The 24th-ranked Illini wrap up their five-game, season-opening homestand with one of their rivalry games. Illinois had lost six out of seven to Northwestern before turning the tables last year with a 48-27 win on a national stage at Wrigley Field. ... For the first time since 1992, Illinois won back-to-back games by three points or less. Such close games emphasize the excellence of senior PK Derek Dimke, who is a perfect 6-of-6 on field-goal tries and 15 extra points this season. Dimke is the most accurate field-goal kicker in Illini history (35 of 40) and ranks fourth among active kickers nationally. ... The five-game winning streak is the Illini's longest since 2007. The Illini have not won six in a row since 2001. ... Illinois ranks fifth nationally in rushing defense, holding opponents to just 56.5 yards a game on the ground. ... The Illini ranked eighth nationally in converting third downs, going 34-of-60 (56.7 percent). ... The Illini also aren't hurting themselves with many penalties. They have been penalized only 15 times for 125 yards, which ranks 10th in the country in number of penalties and ninth in yardage. Both figures lead the Big Ten.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Wildcats:

QB Dan Persa — The fifth-year senior earned first-team all-Big Ten honors last year despite missing the last three games because of his ruptured Achilles' tendon. Now Persa returns to the field for the first time since suffering the injury Nov. 13. For those who've forgotten last year's stats, Persa completed a Big Ten-record 73.5 percent of his passes for 2,581 yards, 15 TDs and 4 INT. He also rushed for 519 yards and 9 TDs in his 10 games.

RB Mike Trumpy — After missing the Eastern Illinois game with a concussion, Trumpy returned during the second quarter of the Army game and contributed 34 yards in eight carries. The sophomore enjoyed the biggest game of his career last year against Illinois. He rushed for 129 yards and two TDs despite breaking his wrist in the first quarter.

WR Jeremy Ebert — After getting shut out against Eastern Illinois, Ebert became Northwestern's primary playmaker against Army with six catches for 108 yards and two TDs. He might be the most excited about Persa's return. During their 10 games together last year, Ebert caught 54 passes for 849 yards and eight TDs. In the three games without Persa last year, Ebert caught eight passes for 104 yards and no scores.

Illini:

QB Nathan Scheelhaase — This redshirt sophomore has taken his game to the next level by improving his accuracy. He's hitting 71.2 percent of his throws, which helps him rank No. 16 in passer efficiency nationally. Scheelhaase hasn't lost any of his ability or desire to run the ball. This dual-threat capability allows the Illini to get into third-and-short situations often.

DE Whitney Mercilus — The redshirt junior has developed into a pass-rushing beast. He earned a sack and three quarterback hurries last week against Western Michigan, which pushed him to four sacks (most in the Big Ten) and five hurries for the year.

RB Troy Pollard — The fifth-year senior isn't considered Illinois' first- or second-string running back, but maybe he should be based on his effectiveness when he gets the ball. Pollard posted career-highs in carries (14) and yards (133) last week, which actually reduced his average to 10.4 yards per carry.

INJURY WATCH:

Wildcats:

Q Dan Persa (Achille's tendon, probable), DT Jack DiNardo (leg, probable), LB Collin Elllis (thumb, probable), S David Arnold (undisclosed, probable), RB Adonis Smith (leg, probable).

Illini:

QB Nathan Scheelhaase (shoulder, probable), OT Corey Lewis (knee, out), RB Josh Ferguson (hamstring, questionable).


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