Last year, Illinois's offense dominated the Northwestern defense. The Illini scored 48 points and running back Mikel Leshoure ran for 330 yards against the Wildcats' front seven in a blowout win at Wrigley.
A year later, Illinois is without LeShoure, but the Illini offense is still very potent. Northwestern looked like its front seven had improved earlier in the season, with a strong showing against Boston College, but it struggled against Army's triple option attack.
If the Wildcats want any chance in this game they have to hope that the front seven has taken a big leap in the last two weeks.
Illini sophomore quarterback Nate Scheelhaase has built on a strong 2010 season, and despite some inconsistency, has shown a tremendous upside, especially on the ground.
However, he has been inconsistent in the passing game, and if the Wildcats can shut down the run, they have a chance to control the game.
Scheelhaase isn't unstoppable, and Northwestern's defense certainly has potential, but the Wildcats have yet to consistently show that potential in game situations. Until we've seen results, it's tough to trust the NU defense, especially the front seven.
When Northwestern has the ball
Illinois has been known for having solid offenses under coach Ron Zook, and particularly for having good running quarterbacks.
However, despite bringing in blue-chip talent, Zook's defenses have underachieved.
Linebacker Jonathan Brown was named Big Ten defensive player-of-the-week for his performance against ASU and lineman Whitney Mercilus, a likely defensive player-of-the-year candidate, has been outstanding as well.
We know what the Illini defense can do, so the real question comes on Northwestern's offense.
Playing is one thing, but returning to last year's form right out of the gate is another.
It's hard to predict how Persa will play, but NU fans should probably expect somewhere between last year's Dan Persa and a complete disaster.
However, it's almost completely certain that Persa can't be the do-everything layer that he was at times last season. He'll need a supporting cast to step up, especially his offensive line and running backs.
Like its defense, the Northwestern offense certainly has potential—perhaps even more—but there are too many questions to give the Wildcats the edge.
Historically, Northwestern has struggled in the kicking game, particularly in clutch situations.
Expect more inconsistency this year, with sophomore Jeff Budzien in his first year as a starter. Budzien started the season off well, with a 43-yard field goal against Boston College, but he's missed his last two and is only one-for-three on the year.
Meanwhile, Illinois senior kicker Derek Dimke has been perfect on all six of his field goal attempts this season, with a long of 39 yards.
Due to consistency and experience, Illinois gets the edge on special teams.
Through much of Ron Zook's tenure in Champaign, Illinois has won despite its coach.
Zook is a great recruiter, but he has not been able to develop that talent or turn it into wins.
Pat Fitzgerald has been the opposite at Northwestern, turning underwhelming recruits into stars. He's an outstanding motivator and his players love to play for him.
With the game on the line, I'd take Fitzgerald over Zook any day.
If it weren't for Persa coming back this week—that should spark NU in some way, shape or form—Illinois would have nearly every intangible advantage.
The Illini (4-0) are off to their best start in 50 years and have a big win against ASU under their belt. They're ranked no. 24 in the AP top 25 and have home-field advantage this Saturday.
Northwestern is coming off a bye week and lost to Army in its last game. That killed the momentum that the defense had gained against Boston College and Eastern Illinois.
The bye week was likely helpful for preparation, but it was also a chance for the Wildcats to lose focus and dwell on the Army loss even more.
Look for Illinois to have an emotional edge this Saturday.
This really hinges on two things; Northwestern's defensive front seven and the play of Dan Persa. If both can step up, the Wildcats could set the stage for a special Big Ten season.
This game will likely set the tone for the rest of the year and both teams hope to be sleepers in their respective divisions.
Don't be surprised if Persa struggles early, but expect him to find a zone later in the game.
It won't be enough, however, as Nate Scheelhaase will have a huge game against a struggling Northwestern front seven.
Illinois should win this game and I expect this to be the year that the Illini finally live up to Big Ten expectations, and that starts with the Land of Lincoln Trophy.
Score: Illinois 31, Northwestern 21