Illinois was being left for dead in the Big Ten just a couple weeks ago, but two straight wins has coach Ron Zook and the Illini on an upswing as Northwestern heads to Champaign.
What is responsible for the sudden surge? Who will play quarterback for Illinois? Those are just two of the questions we posed to Jeff Johnson of OrangeandBlueNews.com to bring you the inside scoop on the Fighting Illini.
After a mostly disappointing first six games, what have been the keys to Illinois winning the last two?
Johnson: Against Michigan, the Wolverines were ready to go up 20-7 in the second half. The Illini had a goal line stand to stop them and a few players later a long TD run to go up 14-13; they got momentum and went on to win the game. Against Minnesota, the same thing: Illinois gets momentum early and holds on to win the game late after a second half rally by the Gophers.
If the Illini get some momentum, they are hard to stop at times. If they fall behind early, they tend to make mistakes and get beat. The past two wins they have gotten momentum and played through that to a win. Saturday, if they come out and score first and get a defensive stop early, they will be hard to beat. But if Northwestern scores early and controls the tempo and pace of the game, Illinois will be in trouble.
Who do you expect to play QB? What are the differences in the games of Jacob Charest and Juice Williams, and how does the offense differ for each?
Johnson: I would say Charest is the starter this week as Williams' ankle just may not be ready to go. Williams is a run-first, read option-type of QB who is at his best throwing the ball 20 times or less. Charest is more of passer that has done a good job of standing in the pocket and being accurate with his passes in the face of pressure.
Zook will say Charest runs the option better than they thought he could be he isn't going to beat anyone doing that consistently in a game.
With all that talent, why has Illinois' offense struggled this year?
Johnson: The offensive line has struggled, Williams has been inconsistent in his passes and frankly, they have killed themselves with penalties, and mental and physical mistakes at critical times.
What will Illinois' offense have to do to be successful?
Johnson: It's all based on running the ball. If Illinois runs the ball well to start the game, it will give Charest more time for play-action passes and to get the short passing game going and score some points. The running game establishes the Illini's tempo and pace, and they have enough weapons on offense, as we have watched the last two weeks, to score a bunch of points on any defense.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of Illinois' defense?
Johnson: The strength of the defense is that's it's a fast, athletic group. Last week the defensive line really came alive and dominated the first half against the Golden Gophers.
The weakness is that this team is going to have a hard time stopping that Northwestern short passing game if Kafka is able to dink-and-dunk and quickly get the ball to his receivers up the field. Last year Northwestern killed Illinois with quick passes and the Illini still haven't been able to stop anything underneath to a tight end consistently this season.
How would you attack the Illinois defense if you were head coach Pat Fitzgerald?
Johnson: Short, quick passes. The Illini safeties will bite on play-action, and Northwestern can go long with the deep ball, which should be open. But the short passing game would be where I would attack Illinois.
What should fans look for out of Illinois' special teams?
Johnson: Both coverage units have been much improved this year, and the Illini haven't given up a big play. The kickoff and punt return have been average.
Junior punter Anthony Santella has had two punts blocked in the last two games, so don't be surprised if Northwestern goes after one on Saturday. Illini field goal kicker Matt Eller has been inconsistent at best this year, but no other place kicker on the team has been able to beat him out during the week at practice.
Are any key players injured this week?
Johnson: Williams is questionable, senior tight end Michael Hoomanawanui has missed the last two games with a high ankle sprain. Earlier in the week Zook said Hoomanwanui was 'probable' for this game but he usually says that every week about his injured players. Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins missed last week with a knee strain but is expected to be back this week. Everyone else should be good to go.
How do you expect the game to unfold on Saturday?
Johnson: Whoever gets the early momentum wins. I see Northwestern putting a lot of pressure early on Charest. He hasn't had an interception yet but should have been picked five times so far this year. All five drops were in the face of pressure.
If Kafka is ready to go and gets the passing game going, I think Northwestern wins this one.