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November 26, 2013

Behind enemy lines: Northwestern

The Fighting Illini close out the 2013 football season on Saturday, as they host the Northwestern Wildcats. Kickoff is set for 2:30pm CT in the battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy.

Orange and Blue News caught up with WildcatReport.com publisher Louie Vaccher to get the inside scoop on Northwestern.


With both teams sitting at 4-7 and out of bowl contention, the focus this week will likely be on the rivalry between Northwestern and Illinois. Is that enough to make this an interesting game for fans, and to motivate each team?

Louie Vaccher: I think the team will be motivated to win because they have continued to play hard, week after week, throughout this devastating seven-game losing streak. The fact that they are playing Illinois may even give them a little extra incentive, especially for the Wildcat players who live in the Land of Lincoln.

Fans, however, would just like to get this season over with. It's has been a swift and sudden fall from Oct. 5, when the Cats were 4-0 and ranked 16th in the country, to Saturday, when they will be playing for pride and their first Big Ten win of the season. Last week's loss to Michigan State means that Northwestern's five-year bowl streak will be snapped, and I think that was sort of the last straw for NU fans. They will support their team, of course, but after so many painful losses this year, I think fans are sort of numb.

The Wildcats are just a few plays away from a very different football season. Talk about how Pat Fitzgerald has kept this team focused despite some heartbreaking losses in the Big Ten.

Vaccher: Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has endured a lot of criticism from the fan base this year, but one thing you have to give him credit for is the effort of his team each week. Fitz is relentlessly positive, and he has always been good at keeping his team focused on the next game, whether they are coming off of a big win (in past years) or a devastating loss. His players still believe in him and his message.

That, in itself, is a major accomplishment in this seven-game Bataan death march. Other than the losses to Wisconsin and MSU, the Wildcats could have easily won the other five games. Heck, the Cats lost two consecutive games (Nebraska and Michigan) in which they held the lead with the regulation clock struck triple zero.

How do they come back after losses like that? I don't know, but whatever Fitz is doing is working.

What's the situation with Kain Colter's injury, and who do the Cats need to step up for them on offense if Colter can't go on Saturday? Is it a totally different look with Trevor Siemian taking all of the snaps at QB?

Vaccher: Kain Colter is officially "day-to-day" with what the always secretive program is calling an "upper extremity injury." That said, Fitz expects his QB to play on Saturday. Colter may not be full strength, and even if he is, Trevor Siemian is sure to get a significant number of snaps. It's Northwestern's MO to play both of its signal callers.

When Colter is behind center, the Wildcats like to run the zone-read running game and the option. He is as dynamic a playmaker is there is in the conference, and he can be a dangerous player with the ball in his hands. Conversely, Northwestern is more of a traditional spread team with vertical passing when Siemian is in the shotgun. He has had a disappointing season overall, but he looked pretty good against the Spartans last week. He even had a couple 10-plus yard runs, so Illinois defenders can't go to sleep on his threat as a runner. He's not fast, but he can move well enough to pick up some yardage.

Senior linebacker Damien Proby is one of the leading tacklers in the Big Ten. How does he compare to the Illini's Jonathan Brown? Who are some other playmakers on the Northwestern defense for Illini fans to keep an eye on?

Vaccher: Damien Proby is a tackling machine and one of the Wildcats' defensive leaders. As a middle linebacker, though, his style is quite a bit different than Brown's. He's not as fast or athletic as Brown, but he's a beast against the running game between the tackles. And while he doesn't have blinding speed, he is fast enough to get sideline-to-sideline and does a decent job in pass defense, too.

I'll give you a guy to watch at each level of the defense. Up front, defensive end Tyler Scott is NU's best defensive lineman. His sack pace has fallen off in recent weeks (he had been the Big Ten leader in sacks for a while), but he's one of those guys with a non-stop motor who is as good against the run as he is the pass.

Among linebackers, Chi Chi Ariguzo just has a nose for the ball. He has four interceptions on the year and if the defense makes a big play, chances are Ariguzo is part of it. In the secondary, the Wildcats' best overall defender is safety Ibraheim Campbell. He's the quarterback of the unit, has four picks and is a guy that can bring the lumber in run support. He will probably play on Sundays.

How do you expect this game to play out on Saturday? Your keys? And do you have final score prediction?

Vaccher: I expect a tight game -- as usual for Northwestern.

The Wildcat defense, in general, has been good enough to win in most of the Wildcats' losses this year. Last week, though, they fell into their old habit of giving up big plays. That can't happen against Illinois because this anemic offense can't get into a shootout.

The Wildcats' offense hasn't scored a TD in more than 10 quarters. The passing game is in a shambles and, without Venric Mark and Stephen Buckley, the Wildcats don't have a speed back in the backfield. The offensive line has been the biggest issue with NU this season, but they have been better the last couple weeks, particularly in the running game. Against MSU, Northwestern rang up 224 yards of offense in the first half against the No. 1 defense in the country. Then, in the second half, they fell behind and the Spartans completely shut them down.

To win, Northwestern will have to make it a low-scoring game. Offensively, first downs will be key; if they get into third-and-long situations they haven't shown the ability to make a big play all season and Illinois will tee off rushing the passer. Then, when they get into the red zone, they have to get touchdowns and not settle for field goals. That has been a problem all year.

I haven't made my official pick yet (I do that on Friday), but I'm struggling to figure out how Northwestern will score enough to win. The margin between a win and a loss will once again be thin, and Northwestern makes too many mistakes to win tight games right now. I say Illinois takes it by a field goal.

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