9-Voit Battery: Previewing Northwestern

I sat down at Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s table at Big Ten Media Days this summer and asked the candid head of the program if his recruiting focus would change now that he and athletic director Jim Phillips had received contract extensions through 2020 and given the Wildcats’ three-year bowl streak. What I got was a distillation of the coach, his philosophy and the roster he will bring to Champaign for Saturday’s showdown.

“I don’t care if anybody else likes ‘em. I don’t care what they’re ranked,” Fitzgerald said of his recruits. “If we like ‘em, that’s all we care about because we go the extra mile to figure out whether or not they’re the right fit. I know that’s not sexy, but I’m not sexy.”

Northwestern will roll out another masterfully fundamental — if unspectacular — team Saturday, and Illinois knocking them off will start with the following nine things:

*1) Winning the turnover battle*

The Wildcats have just one turnover this year compared to four by their opponents. Dan Persa is among the nation’s most efficient quarterbacks (Big Ten-record 73.5 completion percentage in 2010, four interceptions) and the Illini will need to follow suit to improve to 1-0 in Big Ten play. The Illini are 3 on the year in turnover margin, but part of that has to do with a big-play defense that has recovered three fumbles and picked off six passes this year.

*2) Generating chaos in the backfield*

Northwestern’s offensive line is similar in talent to the strong Arizona State group LB Jonathan Brown, DE Whitney Mercilus and Bandit Michael Buchanan obliterated in Week Three, only healthier and more experienced. It will be trickier, however, to cash in on the big play than it was against Arizona State, as Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s offense will remind Illinois fans of Western Michigan’s quick-drop scheme, only with a much heavier emphasis on the run. This means Mercilus and company will need to create havoc behind the line of scrimmage early on in plays or Persa will get into a rhythm. The Illini secondary struggled against Western Michigan’s Alex Carder in the first half — including a drive in the late second quarter in which the Broncos called seven straight passing plays and completed six — but adjusted well at halftime and yielded a modest 100 yards through the air in the second half.

*3) Limiting return ace Venric Mark*

Mark is a 5-foot-8 bullet and one of the top return specialists in the Big Ten already as a true sophomore. The Houston native runs a 4.4-second 40-yard dash and has averaged 28.9 yards per return on kickoffs this year. Illinois shut down Arizona State’s stable of return aces in Week Three and will need to do the same to limit a momentum-swinging big play from Mark. The Illini rank 92nd in the nation currently with an average of 23.95 yards per return allowed — meaning Mark could have a big impact if the Illinois kickoff team doesn’t hold together.

*4) The option pitch*

How much the Illini turn to the option now that offensive tackle Jeff Allen is back remains to be seen, but if last week’s game against Western Michigan is any indication, it could become the Illini’s bread and butter play. Meanwhile, Northwestern struggled against Army’s option attack in Week Two, allowing an average of 5.1 yards a carry for the game. Having defensive tackle Jack DiNardo back in uniform will give Northwestern a boost, but this game will nevertheless be an opportunity for Illinois to get the yardage flowing early.

*5) Limiting Northwestern in the red zone*

Northwestern has one of the most versatile offenses in the country with two athletic quarterbacks in Persa and Kain Colter, a stable of power backs and an intriguing target in superback Drake Dunsmore. What it lacks in stretching the field it makes up for in red zone potency. To date, the Wildcats have scored a touchdown on 10 of 14 trips to the red zone. Their 71.4 touchdown percentage tops Illinois’ mark of 63.2.

*6) Jeff Allen/Michael Heitz vs. Vince Browne*

Northwestern doesn’t generate much pressure up front, but Vince Browne is one of the top ends in the conference. Browne racked up 15.5 tackles for a loss last season on his way to second team All-Big Ten honors. As the right end in defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s defense, Browne will primarily face fellow All-Conference pick Jeff Allen, but it’s the plays against strong side tackle Michael Heitz, a redshirt freshman, that could be most important.

*7) Energy: Will Illinois match Northwestern?*

Fitzgerald demands his players play with energy and spirit and chastised his bench for its low energy level in the season-opening win at Boston College. Northwestern has a large chip on its shoulder after last season’s 48-27 blowout at Wrigley Field and will undoubtedly be up for the game. Illinois, on the other hand, was lifeless at times against Western Michigan.

*8) A stabilized punt game*

A chorus of “Whaaa?” erupted at Memorial Stadium last week when receiver Ryan Lankford got the call to punt twice to specialist Justin DuVernois’ one attempt. Neither was effective, as Lankford boomed a 50-yard ball rugby-style but shanked another for a net of 21 yards. DuVernois, a true freshman, has struggled as the team’s primary punter, recording an average of 38.3 yards on 11 attempts.

*9) A.J. Jenkins and Co.*

Don’t look for Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino to call any more than 25-30 pass plays as the Illini will have a distinct advantage in the run game against a shaky Northwestern defense. However, it will be important to not completely abandon the pass game, and that starts with A.J. Jenkins getting a healthy number of receptions. Sidekick Darius Millines has been quiet of late, and I expect the sophomore to have a bounce back week soon.

_Gordon is a senior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @GordonVoit._