Gameday: On-and-off Illini come to Wrigley on cold streak

Colin Becht

Depending on which Illinois team shows up at Wrigley Field on Saturday, Northwestern could be facing one of two very different opponents.

The Wildcats could be facing the Fighting Illini team that opened the season 5-3, much to the Big Ten’s surprise, a team that handily beat Penn State 33-13 in Happy Valley.

However, the Cats could also get the Illinois team that has dropped its past two contests, giving up a combined 105 points, including 38 to Big Ten cellar-dweller Minnesota on Saturday.

“We let one get away that we shouldn’t have, but there is no use feeling sorry for ourselves,” Illinois coach Ron Zook said. “Let’s go back and play like we played in the first eight games of the year.”

Until its past two games against Michigan and Minnesota, the Illini had been giving up fewer than 17 points per game yet have seen a dramatic swing in their defensive performance recently.

“It just seemed like a different team out there, a different attitude,” defensive back Trulon Henry said.

Zook said a lot of the defense’s struggles came from poor tackling.

“Up until the last two games, we’ve been as good of a tackling team as we’ve been since I’ve been here,” Zook said. “They’re still a good defense, they’re still good coaches and they’re still going to play the way they are capable of playing.”

Beyond missing tackles, the Illini have put a lot less pressure on opposing quarterbacks in their two-game skid. Illinois averaged almost two sacks per game in its first eight games but recorded just one sack apiece against Michigan and Minnesota.

“We’re not playing with the same intensity that we played the first eight ball games with,” Zook said.

Unfortunately for the Illini, pointing out the flaws is a lot easier than fixing them.

“I wish I knew the answer to that, and I could just press the button and go get it back,” Henry said.

While the defense may have taken a significant dive from its earlier performance, the Illinois offense remains a potent threat, averaging 31.4 points per game, good for 38th in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

“Offensively, you can see the playmakers all over the place,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It’s one of the teams offensively that I think gives you fits.”

Freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has improved his ability to move the ball through the air throughout the season. He has thrown for 172 yards or more each of the past three games after throwing for fewer than 100 yards in two of his first three games.

“He’s getting better with every snap,” Zook said. “He’s a guy who learns from his mistakes.”

After throwing three picks in his first game, Scheelhaase has thrown just four more the rest of the season.

“I told him, ‘You’re no longer a rookie; you’re a veteran,'” Zook said.

Perhaps a greater worry to the Cats is Scheelhaase’s ability to move the ball with his feet as he has averaged more than 55 yards on the ground a game. He topped the century mark in two of the Illini’s past three games.

“I’ve been really impressed by Nathan,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s doing a great job of running their option attack.”

A bigger threat in the Illinois backfield is running back Mikel Leshoure, who is second in the Big Ten, averaging 104.1 yards per game with 11 rushing touchdowns.

“They want to run the ball and establish the run,” Fitzgerald said.

Much like the challenge facing NU when the Cats prepared for Purdue and a virtual unknown in quarterback Rob Henry, the Illini have to ready themselves for an NU offense that knows very little of what it will look like under redshirt freshman quarterback Evan Watkins.

“I don’t know a lot other than that every year I’ve been here they’ve always had a good quarterback,” Zook said. “We’ll have to make adjustments in the game once we get into it.”

[email protected]