college football picks Northern Illinois at Illinois 9-18-10

September 17, 2010

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DATE & TIME: Saturday, September 18th, 12:00 p.m. (et)

FACTS & STATS: Site: Memorial Stadium (62,870) — Champaign, Illinois. Television: BigTenNetwork. Home Record: NIU 1-0, Illinois 1-0. Away Record: NIU 0-1, Illinois 0-0. Neutral Record: NIU 0-0, Illinois 0-1. Conference Record: NIU 0-0, Illinois 0-0. Series Record: Illinois leads, 3-0.

GAME NOTES: The Fighting Illini are in the midst of a three-game home stand, and will take on the Northern Illinois Huskies this Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

The Huskies are coming off their first victory on the season, but they were not overly impressive in the win, as coach Jerry Kill’s squad grabbed a slim, 23-17 decision over North Dakota. It was a victory though and a much needed one at that considering the Huskies fell in their opener to Iowa State, 27-10.

As for the Illini, they begin their season at a neutral site against Missouri. Coach Ron Zook’s team took an early lead, but eventually fell to the Tigers, 23-13. Illinois rebounded from the loss rather quickly, as the team grabbed a 35-3 victory over Southern Illinois in its home opener. Now the Illini will do battle with NIU, before the Ohio State Buckeyes invade Champaign.

This will be the first matchup between the two schools since Illinois defeated the Huskies, 17-12 back in 2001. Overall, the Illini hold a 3-0 edge over NIU in the all-time series.

Last season the Huskies possessed one of the top rushing attacks in the entire nation, and coach Kill’s goal is for his team to duplicate that success this year.

Even though the team was defeated in the opener, the Huskies still rumbled for 156 yards, and NIU was even better against North Dakota in its second game. In the team’s first victory on the season, the Huskies punished North Dakota for 364 yards on 7.4 yards per attempt.

Chad Spann rushed for 140 yards and one score in the victory, but it was quarterback Chandler Harnish who led the way for NIU on the ground, as the signal caller gashed the opposition for 178 yards and one touchdown. The combination of Spann and Harnish give the Huskies a formidable one-two punch and if both players can remain healthy and on the field, look for NIU to be a force on the ground once again.

However, Harnish does have another job to do when he is on the field, and that is manage the game and make throws, but at this point he is a bit erratic. Against North Dakota the signal caller only threw for 146 yards and finished the game with one touchdown and one interception. It is clear Harnish is dangerous with his legs, but for NIU to be a true threat the quarterback must improve his passing.

In 2009 the Huskies were solid defensively, and did the little things right, which helped them become one of the top units in their conference.

However, in 2010 there seems to be some holes in coach Kill’s defense, primarily in the secondary, which has struggled the first two contests. After being torched by Iowa State through the air, the Huskies surrendered 267 yards and one score against North Dakota’s passing attack. The defense did do some positive things against the pass, like recording three sacks and grabbing an interception, but still this unit clearly has issues defending the pass at the present moment.

Fortunately the front line was impressive against the run in the last matchup, as NIU limited North Dakota to just 67 rushing yards on 2.2 yards per attempt. Although Iowa State found some holes to run through, the Huskies are usually stout against the run and should continue to excel in that area.

The Illini used a potent ground game to defeat the opposition last season, and that looks to be the strength of the offense in 2010 as well. Although the Illini were defeated in the opener against Missouri, coach Zook’s squad still churned out 200 yards on the ground.

Mikel Leshoure, who rushed for 112 yards in the loss to the Tigers, was even better against Southern Illinois, as the tailback rumbled for 115 and two touchdowns.

What helped Illinois in this contest however, was the play of Nathan Scheelhaase under center. The quarterback was a tremendous complement to the rushing attack, as he threw for 229 yards and two scores on 14-of-18 efficiency.

The Illini also put forth a strong showing defensively in the win over Southern Illinois, but fans should not get carried away by the display, since Illinois was facing the Salukis.

Nonetheless the unit still played well, especially against the run, as the frontline bottled up SIU for just 46 yards on 29 carries. It was the second consecutive game Illinois held an opponent under 100 yards on the ground, which is important considering the team allowed 154.3 rushing ypg a year ago.

It was evident that the Salukis were no matchup for coach Zook’s defense, which also forced two turnovers and recorded four sacks. SIU, which collected just 14 first downs, was held to a mere 3-of-16 on third down attempts by the tenacious defense of Illinois.

The Illini have played surprisingly well against the run thus far, but now this unit will get a true test this weekend. The Huskies are a running team and should be able to move the ball on the ground against Illinois, but the major question is, can the Huskies stop the Illini’s rushing attack?

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