The low-down down state

Illinois is such a tough one to figure out, Purple Reign brought in not one, but two experts to help set things straight. The Illini beat writers for the Chicago Tribune and Champaign News-Gazette banter with Purple Reign about Illinois and this week's matchup. See what they had to say about Ron Zook, the Illinois quarterback situation and how the team rebounded from its dreadful start.

After last week's admittedly lackluster email exchange, Purple Reign went out and found a pair of Illinois beat writers to enlighten us this week. Shannon Ryan from the Chicago Tribune and Bob Rasmussen of the Champaign News-Gazette join Purple Reign to break down this weekend's opponent and game.

Illinois won't be the first Northwestern opponent to have a bit of a split personality.

For example: Two weeks after the Wildcats won in West Lafayette – forcing Purdue into an incredible six turnovers – the Boilermakers proceeded to topple then-No. 7 Ohio State. And when Northwestern faced off against Indiana, the Hoosiers' previous two games were (1) a 47-7 shellacking at the hands of 1-3 Virginia and (2) a 13-point win over Illinois. And after Syracuse dropped 37 points on the Wildcats, the Orange scored 33 points combined in their next two FBS games.

So it's nothing new that an NU opponent would be tough to read.

But for all the schizo teams that have appeared on the Wildcats' schedule, none comes close to being as unpredictable as Illinois. This is incredible: The Illini have two wins and two losses by at least 25 points. They scored 42 combined points during a three-game losing streak to Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue, and then turned around and dropped 38 on Michigan and 35 on Minnesota – both wins. This is crazy, too: Illinois is tied for the conference's second-longest winning streak with two straight Ws. Thus, the team with the second-worst record in the Big Ten has the conference's second-longest winning streak. Go figure.

So yeah, Illinois is a weird one. Stranger than any team that Northwestern has played this season. As an outsider, there are two things in particular that are striking about Illinois' mini-collapse to start this season. First off is the Illini's trip to the Rose Bowl just two short years ago. And while there was some consternation over the Illini getting that Rose Bowl bid in the first place – a feeling in no way allayed by the dud they laid against USC – the fact remains that they were there.

And another thing, which is extra striking as a Scout.com writer, is that Illinois has had some big-time recruiting classes in the last few years – players who, in theory, should be thriving no in 2009. According to Scout, Illinois had the No. 28 recruiting class in the nation in 2006, best in the Big Ten save bluebloods Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State. In '07, Illinois' haul ranked No. 20 and included a pair of five-star prospects, like wideout Arrelious Benn, and five four-star recruits. And in 2008 the Illini's class was dubbed No. 19 in the nation, the third best in the conference.

Yet here Illinois sits at 3-6. In '09, the team has suffered a five-game losing streak. They got spanked by 28 points by rival Missouri. They were blanked by Ohio State. They've had three different quarterback, and not one has completed more than 57 percent of his passes.

So, before we get to the matchups and history of this Illinois-Northwestern game, tell us what's happened with this team. How did Illinois regress so much? Why is it that the ballyhooed recruits have floundered in Champaign? Do people blame Ron Zook? And equally intriguing: What gives with the recent surge? A team that faceplants out of the gates like Illinois can sometimes pack it in. But the Illini haven't. How is that?

Bob Rasmussen: Start with what happened to the recruits. And the 2007 class in particular. That would be the current junior class. Normally, you'd expect to have a great contribution from your junior class, especially one with as much hype as the one brought in by Illinois. It hasn't happened. Sure, Arrelious Benn is one of the best receivers in school history and Martez Wilson showed a lot of promise, but of the 21 players signed in 2007, nine are no longer on campus. That includes a few that never even made it to campus and others who didn't fit.

If you count Martez Wilson (neck) and Miami Thomas (knee), who are out for the season, Illinois has just 10 of the players from the 2007 class on the current roster.

Yes, the recent classes were highly rated. And Illinois is getting good productivity with very little attrition from the 2008 and 2009 classes. But when you are missing half your juniors, it won't be as good as you expect.

No question, Ron Zook is taking a large share of the blame. Both for the way players have developed and for the play calling during the games. There are also concerns about his game management and some of his coaching hires. First-year offensive coordinator Mike Schultz has taken his share of the blame. I don't know how fair that is. The guy tried to come in and fit his style to what Illinois was already running. That's difficult to do and I'm not sure you can judge a guy after nine games.

During the two-game winning streak, many have said that's the way Illinois should have been playing all along. The defense is being more aggressive and the offense, no matter who plays quarterbacks, looks more confident. In past years, if starter Juice Williams had been considered doubtful for an upcoming game, it would have been met with a lot of negativity. But I sense people have confidence in Jacob Charest, who played well against Minnesota.

Illinois is getting help from some new or unexpected guys, particularly on defense. Terry Hawthorne has made a pair of huge plays the past two weeks, helping to turn the game against Michigan and returning an interception for a touchdown against Minnesota. Unless teams start throwing away from him, Hawthorne is going to have more of those in his career.

You have to give Ron Zook credit for not letting his team quit after the 1-6 start. Illinois was about to go down 20-7 against Michigan before Hawthorne dragged a receiver down at the 1 and the defense stopped the Wolverines on four consecutive runs. Since then, it's been a different team. Maybe the Hawthorne play was the one that snapped the team out of its funk.

Believe it or not, fans are actually talking about a bowl game for Illinois. Not loudly. Not with Cincinnati on the card in two weeks. But they are talking about it. If you had mentioned a 6-6 finish for Illinois before the Michigan game, you would have been locked up.

Shannon Ryan: People ask how Illinois has regressed so much, but I'm not sure by which year the Illini should be judged. The Illini have only had one winning season since 2001 and only won the Big Ten twice since 1990. Even in the 2007 Rose Bowl season, they suffered four losses, getting blown out 49-17 by USC. Currently with three wins, this is the same or more victories than the Illini have had in four of the last seven seasons (including this season).

However, I understand that expectations rise when big-name recruits are brought in and don't deliver.

Nothing has clicked with Illinois from the start of the season. Losing linebacker Martez Wilson was a blow to the defense, but the most confounding part of the Illini is how the offense has imploded.

Juice Williams, who averages about 57 percent on completed passes his last three seasons, was at his best in 2007 when his rush-to-pass ratio was more balanced. It's also perplexing how receiver Arrelious Benn, despite missing most of one game with an injury, has only 29 catches and one touchdown this season. He's had only five or more catches and broken the 90-yard barrier in only two games.

Fair or not, the fingers in Champaign usually point Zook's way. That's typically what happens with losing teams. He's currently 21-36 in his fifth season at Illinois, and this season in particularly has tested fans' patience because of the high expectations.

But Zook did lead the Illini to the Rose Bowl in 2007 and was named the Big Ten coach of the year. Despite this train wreck of a season, the Illini still have a shot - a long shot - at making a bowl. If they win their final three games, they can become bowl eligible.

Players this week have credited Zook for telling them to "take the emergency brake off" and to play looser. They've now beaten Michigan and Minnesota in back to back games. They faced a lot of expectations, especially offensively, in the preseason and when they faltered it sounds like players tightened up. Now they say they're focused on just executing the plays rather than scoring points.

Purple Reign: People are talking bowl, huh? Interesting. Even if the Illini don't get the requisite six wins, that still must be refreshing to be thinking about bowls at all. Looking at the remaining schedule, it's curious that Northwestern will be Illinois' final conference title. After the Cats, Illinois has two odd, non-Big Ten games left – No. 5 Cincinnati and Fresno State. A weird way to close out a weird season.

Alas, Northwestern is up next, so let's talk for a moment about this week's game. This Illinois-Northwestern matchup has been owned by NU recently. The Wildcats have won five of the last six meetings, even when they've had so-so teams – like in 2006, when NU won just four games but still beat Illinois 27-16. (To be fair, Illinois was 2-10 that year.)

Aside from NU's recent dominance over Illinois, what's also interesting about this matchup is that Northwestern has thrived at Illinois. Save the Rose Bowl year of 2007, the last few times that the Cats have gone to Champaign, they've handled Illinois easily. In 2003, NU won 37-20, and in 2005, NU notched another 17-point win, 38-21. (Seventeen seems to be the magic number for Northwestern against the Illini – three of the past five wins against Illinois have been by 17.)

Of course, history doesn't determine who's going to win this season. And it's especially hard to get a read on the Illini this season. So please lend some guidance about this Illinois squad.

Starting with the offense…the Illini have eclipsed 34 points in each of their last two games, downing Minnesota and Michigan in the process. With an ankle injury to Juice Williams, Jacob Charest has gotten playing time in two of the last three games, completing 14-of-27 passes for 237 yards and a touchdown. The Daily Herald is reporting that "it's probably safer to assume redshirt freshman Jacob Charest gets his first start" this week as Williams' ankle is still bothering him. Is that what you're hearing as well – Williams is a no-go and Charest will get the nod?

After four years – four years that seem like seven – Big Ten fans are pretty familiar with Juice Williams. But if Charest is in line to start, then that changes everything.

But the passing game isn't the only curiosity; so's the ground game. Illinois had an "Is that a typo?" performance against Michigan, tallying 377 yards on the ground and totaling 500 total yards despite only 11 pass attempts. Sophomore Jason Ford averages an outlandish 7.2 yards per carry but only has 431 yards on the season – less than 50 per game. Mikel LeShoure has some solid stats, too, getting better than six yards per carry, but he also has less than 500 this year.

On the other side of the ball, is the Illinois defense as bad as it looks? That unit has given up at least 27 points five times in nine games, and at least 30 points in four of those. The Illini are No. 9 in total defense in the conference, No. 9 in rushing defense, No. 9 in sacks and No. 9 in passing defense. And they are a lowly No. 8 in scoring defense. Basically, it seems like a pedestrian unit.

But there are circumstances that can conspire against defenses. Northwestern's D, for instance, has had to deal with a handful of possessions that started inside the 40 yard-line because of offensive turnovers. And sometimes passing defense stats are skewed because teams build big leads and then trade yards for minutes.

So with an offense and defense that both have a recent affinity for the 30-point plateau, what do you foresee in this game? What's the book on Charest? Are the running backs' yards-per-carry averages legit, or is it a bunch of short run with one or two home runs in there to skew things? Will Northwestern's offense, which has scored just 23 points combined the past two weeks, be able to score against Illinois?

Ryan: Ron Zook said at his weekly Tuesday press conference that Williams is questionable and wouldn't be surprised to see Juice out there on Saturday. Zook doesn't usually like to play anyone unless they've practiced most of the week and Juice was held out (as of Wednesday). I would be surprised if Williams started or played much beyond a backup role, even though Zook isn't revealing his cards. If Charest struggles a lot and the Illini fall a couple scores behind, I think Zook would insert Williams (if healthy).

Charest is actually more deceptive than one would think. He moves around pretty well in the pocket and, as Zook says, "can get out of trouble." He seems to read defenses well, shows patience and usually knows when to get rid of the ball. So far, he's been pretty impressive, especially considering he's only played in two games.

The running backs have been pretty solid. In the last two games, Illinois has rushed more than in any of their previous games and I think that has helped them secure victories. Leshoure had consecutive 100-plus yard games against Purdue and Michigan and was still serviceable against Minnesota. Northwestern is pretty solid against the run, so it should be interesting to see how Ford, LeShoure and Daniel Dufrene do against the Wildcats.

As for the defense, this is actually an area where the Illini have shown a lot of improvement. They've been pretty solid in the second half of games, in particular the third quarters, but are now starting to play a complete game. The defensive line was especially strong against Minnesota, sacking QB Adam Weber seven times. DE Clay Nurse had four sacks and DT Josh Brent was also very strong. If Kafka plays for Northwestern, he can be tough to contain, so I'll be interested to see how they handle him.

Rasmussen: I don't think we'll know for sure until later in the week, but reading between the lines, I think Charest gets his first start. If I'm Illinois, I want Northwestern preparing for the possibility that Williams will be available, which might still be the case. They are two very different quarterbacks and present different styles. Give him a full week to prepare and I think Charest will be better than he was against Minnesota. He doesn't have the picture perfect throwing motion, but the ball gets there and the receivers seem to like the throws. And he is very good at escaping trouble without scrambling, similar to Kurt Kittner.

Charest won't run as much as Williams, but he can run. Like he put it the other day, Juice and Eddie McGee will run if there's an open lane, while Charest is more likely to pass.

Jason Ford had big numbers against Illinois State, which accounts for a chunk of the 7.2 average. But he has run well against good teams, too. Leshoure has been more consistent against the better teams on the schedule. He has more the look of a 1,000-yard back than Ford. But both can be very good. The guy to look out for is freshman Justin Green, who is the fastest player on the team. He hasn't played as much as I would have expected.

I think the Illinois defense has been hurt by a couple of things. First, the offense hasn't helped much, turning the ball over at inopportune times. The offense hasn't held the ball as much as Illinois would like either. Second, losing Martez Wilson and Miami Thomas for the season has had a domino impact on the rest of the guys. I think it would be a couple spots better in the major defensive categories with those guys on the field. Of course, had Thomas not gotten hurt, Terry Hawthorne would have stayed on offense.

I expect a game similar to Illinois-Minnesota, which ended 35-32. Like you pointed out, Northwestern has played well against Illinois in recent years. That will continue. But I think Illinois is playing relaxed and loose, which they didn't do earlier in the season. Charest is one of those relaxed and loose guys. It's like he doesn't realize he is playing in the Big Ten. He's got the perfect personality for this group. The Illinois running backs are being helped by the competition. Ford and Leshoure push each other. I think Northwestern wins a close game, 31-28, and ends Illinois' bowl hopes.

Purple Reign: Let's hope so.

Big thanks to Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune and Bob Rasmussen of the News-Gazette. To reach Purple Reign, please write to northwestern.scout@gmail.com.


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