Football: Illini make impression on Wildcats

Matt Baker

Northwestern’s 31-28 win over Indiana on Saturday was huge, making the Wildcats bowl-eligible for the fourth time since 2000.

But you wouldn’t guess that by listening to their weekly press conference Monday.

Instead of dwelling on Saturday’s win, the Cats focused on this week’s opponent, No. 20 Illinois, and praised the Illini’s 28-21 win over then-No. 1 Ohio State.

“Our guys have the utmost respect for the way that they’ve played and the way that they go about their business,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’ve gone through some experiences with similar opponents but nothing like the challenge we’re going to have on Saturday. We’re going to have our hands full. We’re going to have to go out there and do the best job that we can and stay in the game and make it a four-quarter game.”

As if knocking off the best team in the country wasn’t enough to catch the Cats’ attention, Illinois’ upset seems even more impressive when compared to NU’s game in Columbus, Ohio, in September.

The Cats racked up just 120 yards against the Buckeyes and gave up 45 first-half points en route to an embarrassing 58-7 loss to open the Big Ten season.

Illinois totaled 400 yards Saturday and held the conference’s No. 1 scoring offense to just 21 points.

“We don’t really look back to that day very much, but it was really impressive to see what they were able to do on Saturday, ” senior wide receiver Tonjua Jones said. “They played really hard. Their defensive line was in the backfield more often than not, and their offensive line played really hard. They played really physically and really strong, and that gives you an opportunity to win.”

But NU’s offensive line was one of the unsung heroes of Saturday’s win over Indiana. After allowing 11 sacks the past two weeks, the Cats held Greg Middleton and the country’s fourth-best pass-rushing unit without a sack.

Fitzgerald cautioned that the Cats can’t get too cocky this week when they line up against Illinois linebacker J Leman, who ranks third in the conference in tackles.

“Without a doubt,” Fitzgerald said when asked if Leman is the toughest linebacker NU has faced. “As a former linebacker, he’s a lot of fun to watch. Our offensive line’s going to have its hands full.”

Despite the in-state rivalry, Illinois’ momentum and the fact that the Cats will likely need a win to secure a bowl berth, Jones said NU will treat Saturday’s matchup like any other game.

“Any time that we go out there and play, it’s for something,” Jones said. “I think football is a lot bigger than just a game. What would our nation do without football on Saturdays and Sundays? Every game is a big game.”


Four NU players were named to ESPN The Magazine’s first-team Academic All-District selections and are now up for All-America honors: junior quarterback C.J. Bacher, junior long snapper Phil Brunner, sophomore defensive lineman Adam Hahn and junior wide receiver Eric Peterman. To be nominated, players must be at least sophomores, carry a cumulative GPA of at least 3.2 and be a starter or key reserve. It’s the second time Brunner and Peterman have been selected. … The Cats have beaten the Illini four straight times to retain possession of the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk Trophy.

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