The Illini enter this matchup with a two-game losing streak in tow. The team has had its ups and downs this season resulting in a 5-5 overall mark and that includes just a 3-4 record in-conference. The Illini were home last weekend, but suffered a 38-34 setback at the hands of Minnesota.
The Wildcats on their other hand have won two of their last three games and now sit at 7-3 overall and an even 3-3 in Big Ten action. The team hosted nationally-ranked Iowa last weekend and posted a 21-17 victory in the upset.
These two teams will battle for the "Land of Lincoln" trophy. This is the 104th meeting in this longstanding series with Illinois holding a 52-46-5 series advantage, but Northwestern has won two straight and six of the last seven meetings, overall.
The Illini have been a strong offensive team this year, averaging 31.5 ppg. The strength of the unit comes on the ground, where Illinois is churning out 207.1 yards per game. Junior tailback Mikel Leshoure is having a banner season thus far, rumbling for 1,041 yards and 11 TDs, getting it done on 5.2 yards per carry. Redshirt freshman QB Nathan Scheelhaase has been instrumental in the running game as well (587 yards, three TDs). He has had moderate success throwing the ball as well, completing nearly 60 percent of his passes, for 1,482 yards and 15 TDs. The top target in the vertical game has clearly been junior WR A.J. Jenkins, who has hauled in 40 receptions, for 595 yards and five TDs (all team-highs).
Inconsistent play on the defensive side of the ball has plagued the Illini this season, resulting in the team allowing 23.9 ppg. Junior middle linebacker Martez Wilson has had a strong season thus far, leading the way with 93 total tackles, with 7.5 TFLs, 2.0 sacks, an INT and a fumble recovery. Senior LB Nate Bussey is a distant second in stops (63), with one INT and three fumble recoveries. Junior free safety Trulon Henry (50 tackles) has been active as well and paces the team with three INTs.
Northwestern has had great success on offense, thanks to a balanced attack that is generating over 400 yards per game (410.7). The ground game is netting a serviceable 145.4 yards per game, while the passing attack has been steady at 265.3 yards per outing. Quarterback Dan Persa has been the man this year in both facets of the game, pacing the team in rushing (519 yards, nine TDs), while also completing a hefty 73.5 percent of his passes, for 2,581 yards and 15 TDs, with only four INTs. Junior wide receiver Jeremy Ebert has quietly had a superb season in Evanston, amassing 54 receptions, 849 receiving yards and eight scores.
The numbers allowed by the NU defense have mimicked the offense, as the team is allowing 137.4 yards per game on the ground and 249.6 through the air. Still, this is a unit that has made plays when it counted the most. Leading the way is junior safety Brian Peters, with 73 total tackles. Senior middle linebacker Nate Williams is a close second with 67 stops, including 8.5 TFLs and two sacks. A force along the defensive line, junior rush end Vince Browne is tearing it up, with team-highs in TFLs (13.0) and sacks (7.0).
The Illini have been hot and cold while the Wildcats have been surprisingly sharp down the stretch. The big win over Iowa could propel NU to an even stronger finish.