Champaign, Illinois- “The Land of Lincoln” trophy will remain in the hands of the Illinois Fighting Illini. After a game where Illinois looked like it was in for a rude awakening, the Illini beat the Northwestern Wildcats 38-35 at home on saturday. They will improve to a flawless 5-0 record and 1-0 in Big Ten play.
Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa made his first start since rupturing his Achilles tendon in November of last season. And Dan Persa returned with a vengence.
It was a perfect day at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois. The sky was partly cloudy and there was just a slight chill to the air. A perfect fall day and a perfect day for the innerstate rivalry between Illinois and Northwestern. The first quarter started off with a back and forth battle with neither team gaining many yards. They were feeling each other out. The pressure on Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase proved troublesome early. On a play in the red zone, Nathan Scheelhaase threw a floater over a charging Northwestern defender into the endzone. Before the ball could get near an Illini receiver, Northwestern safety Brian Peters snatched it down one-handed for the turnover. Northwestern was forced to punt soon after, the punt was shanked short and gave Illinois great field position. Nathan Scheelhaase took advantage and connected on a 14 yard touchdown pass to A.J. Jenkins late in the first quarter. The power running game that Illinois used to defeat Northwestern last year and the same power running that Army used last game to beat Northwestern, was nonexistent this contest. Illinois continued to run option plays that the Northwestern defense swallowed up the entire first half. An option shuffle pass from Nathan Scheelhaase hit Troy Pollard in the back on a miscue causing another lost Illinois turnover.
In the second quarter, Dan Persa sparked the passing game for Northwestern, which extremely weak so far this season. He connected with Drake Dunsmore on a 6 yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter. Illinois was unable to answer. Late in the half, Northwestern’s Dan Persa was back to form and was as elusive as ever. His passing and the Northwestern run game were proving difficult for the Illinois defense. Frustration set in and when Northwestern was in scoring range, Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown kneed a Northwestern offensive linemen in the groin for a stupid and absolutely ugly penalty. Northwestern took advantage and scored right away on a 3 yard pass from Persa to Jeremy Ebert. To end the half, Illinois got on a strong drive and scored in the end zone on a Scheelhaase pass to wide receiver Spencer Harris. A very questionable offensive pass interference penalty was called and Illinois had to settle with a 49 yard field goal (season high) by kicker Derek Dimke. Northwestern went into half with the lead 14-10. Momentum was completely on the side of the Wildcats.
Momentum continued to be owned by the Wildcats. Dan Persa showed his elusiveness and Illinois could not tackle him during the first possession of the half. He marched the Wildcats right down the field and he threw a 39 yard pass to Jeremy Ebert to strike first. Northwestern running back Mike Trumpy went out in the third quarter on what looked like a serious knee injury. The “Dan Persa Party” continued in the third quarter. He hit a career high fourth touchdown pass on a 4 yard pass to Jeremy Ebert to put Northwestern up 28-10. At this point, the crowd went quiet, I was ready to call it a day, but not Illinois. Illinois has found a way to come back and win in their past two contests against Arizona State and Western Michigan. Unlike those two games, the spark didn’t come from the defense, it came from the Illini offense. Late in the third quarter, Nathan Scheelhaase hooked up with wide receiver A.J. Jenkins on a 33 yard touchdown pass. The score became 28-17 and it woke the crowd up. Illinois was ready to put on an air show. They started the third quarter on yet another meeting between A.J. Jenkins and Scheelhaase. This time on a 50 yard reception that closed the gap. Illinois opted to go for two points instead of the point after, and failed, making the score now 23-28. Dan Persa was tackled after being pressured by the Illini defense. He took himself out of the game immediately and didn’t return. It looked as though he reinjured his Achilles. It hasn’t been officially stated the status of his injury, but as of now, Dan Persa is planning on starting Northwestern’s next game against Michigan. Northwestern’s offense, without Dan Persa, was being owned by the Illini defense. Illinois would score the next points when running back Donovonn Young pushed himself into the end zone on a 1 yard touchdown run, putting Illinois up 31-28 after a Spencer Harris catch for the successful 2 point conversion. Northwestern was unable to answer. Illinois got the ball back and had the chance to run out the clock. Illinois running back Jason Ford fumbled the ball in their own territory with 2:58 left in the game. Northwestern responded with a 6 yard run by Jacob Schmidt, leaving only 1:15 left in the game. Most teams would check out and call it a day, but Illinois continued it’s winning ways. The effective passing game continued and led to a Nathan Scheelhaase 1 yard touchdown run. This put Illinois in the lead 35-38 with only :13 left in the game. Norhtwestern responded with a “backyard play” in which the players lateraled and backwards passed the ball back and forth. At one point, it looked like the Wildcats may pull it off on the desperation play, but the Illini defense swarmed to the ball and ended the game.
Illinois takes advantage of their 5 straight home game opening by going 5-0. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had 21 of 32 (career high) for 393 yards (career high), 3 touchdowns, and one interception.
Player of the Game- The record breaking day wasn’t just limited to Scheelhaase, wide receiver A.J. Jenkins also had a school record performance. He’s guaranteed to be noticed by NFL scouts with his career game of 12 catches for 268 and 3 touchdowns. This is an Illinois school record.
Honorable Mention- The Illinois offensive line was also a huge factor in the second half. They gave Nathan Scheelhaase all the time they could on every possession. His passes wouldn’t have been possible without the exaggerated time the line gave him.
The Illinois will continue their Big Ten Conference play with their first road game against a weak Indiana team next saturday. To win, Illinois will have to clean up the stupid mistakes, turnovers, penalties, etc. We know they’re capable of being in the top of the Big Ten. But the mistakes are hurting them. They averaged just 3 penalties a game so far this season. Against Northwestern, Illinois had 8 penalties for 70 yards.