As you have surely heard, Saturday is homecoming. Well, technically all week is homecoming. The University has taken a page out of the Kentucky Derby playbook and arranged a whole week of activities. But we all know the main event is going to Kam’s to see middle-aged male alums in pleated khakis and loafers drink flat drafts while ogling co-eds. The upside is that there’s likely to be less grinding than Mom’s weekend (note “less” does not equal a promise of “none”).
If you’re not feeling that, take a walk south and you may be surprised to find that they have staged a football game for the potential donors, er I mean alumni.
The media love bandwagons, and one of the widest bandwagons has been Northwestern football, specifically how they are a resurgent team, on the rise. They were receiving votes in the preseason rankings in both polls, and continued to for weeks, until they dropped a game to one of the service academies. No, not Navy, who has become rather respectable. Army. The worst service academy, football-wise, a group of rather undersized players that rely on a gimmicky triple-option offense.
In full disclosure, I have a deep personal dislike of Northwestern University. I don’t really know why. Maybe it is as simple as the fact that I am an Illinois alum, and Northwestern’s inclusion in the Big Ten seems like an affront to Illinois’s status as the flagship state university, which should earn it the right to be the lone representative in the Big Ten (yes, I know that both Indiana and Michigan have two teams. Still…). Maybe it’s because Northwestern, a small private school, doesn’t really seem to fit in to the Big Ten. The University of Chicago, a charter member of the Big Ten that clearly no longer fits in, dropped out. Purple Cats: take the hint. But really, I think it’s the cat sound effect that they play at home games whenever something good happens. If you check out a game in E-town, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Completely broke.
So don’t expect an evenhanded treatment here. I’ll do my best, but I’m telling you up front it likely isn’t possible.
The big story line going in to this game is the return of Dan Persa, Northwestern’s great white hope of a quarterback. And he is very, very talented. But he also hasn’t played a snap of football since last November’s achilles tendon injury. Can a mobile QB like Persa step right in to a road game against a ranked opponent and make magic happen? Add in an in-state rivalry and a homecoming atmosphere, and my vote is no. Dan Persa is a great athlete, and we’ll see that later this year. But my prediction is that he isn’t great enough to step into this game and take control.
Also, Dan Persa does not play defense. This is a problem, since the rest of Northwestern’s team doesn’t, either. You may remember when NU and the Orange and Blue met at Wrigley last year, and Mikel Leshoure put up rushing numbers that are typically only seen by Bo Jackson in Tecmo Super Bowl (look it up, kids). I have yet to hear a cogent explanation of how Dan Persa would have tackled Leshoure. Sure, it likely would have changed the time of possession (which was staggeringly in Illinois’ favor), but I don’t see how that changes anything except making it less of a blowout in favor of Illinois.
People talk about how Northwestern went 7–3 before Persa was hurt last year, as evidence that their defense is good enough when the offense was clicking. Maybe so. But of those 7 and 3, the losses were against Purdue, Michigan State and Penn State. The wins were against Vanderbilt, Illinois State, Rice, Central Michigan, Minnesota (a 1 pointer), Indiana (a 3 pointer) and an excellent Iowa team. So make your own judgment about that. I have, and my call is that the NU defense just is not up to snuff to put the Purple Cats ahead in games against quality opponents, regardless of who is taking snaps.
On Illinois’ side of the ball, we’ll likely see a whole lot of running from Illinois, with liberal option use. NU’s loss to Army’s triple-option offense is likely going to give Petrino some ideas, and Scheelhaase and Troy Pollard worked well together teaming up on the option plays towards the end of the WMU game.
Illinois is favored by 10 points in this game. That started at 7 points, but the bettors have been jumping on Illinois, moving the line. This enthusiasm is probably not because of what Illinois did last week, eeking out a close win after starting lackluster against Western Michigan, but rather what Illinois’s previous foe did last week. Arizona State romped on then-ranked USC, their second win against a ranked opponent. That added a little more shine to the Illini’s night win over the Sun Devils.
This matchup was traditionally at the end of the Big Ten schedule, giving me a (passable) excuse to get wasted on Hot Buttered Rum in an Evanston parking lot to deaden the frostbite sensation developing in my toes. Conference realignment has moved it up in the year, to the conference opener.
Get out there for Homecoming. Though it’s the 101st anniversary, this is actually the 100th celebration (it wasn’t celebrated in 1918 because of World War I) But don’t have all your fun too early. You’ll want to be semi-coherent at the bars afterwards while Nebraska and Wisconsin, ranked eighth and ninth nationally, respectively, square off at 7:00.
Illinois and Northwestern meet at 11:00 a.m., and the game is televised on ESPN2. Mercifully, there will be no cat sound effects.