Illinois is looking to win the Land of Lincoln rivalry trophy for the second year in a row.
Sept. 26, 2011
Oct. 1, 2011 // 11:01 am CDT kick // ESPN2
Champaign, Ill. // Memorial Stadium (60,670)
The Illinois/Northwestern game will be nationally televised on ESPN2 with an air time of 11 a.m. CDT. Beth Mowins (play-by-play) and Mike Bellotti (color analyst) will call the action with Bart Fox producing and Kelly Atkinson directing. The game will also be streamed live at ESPN3.com.
The 41-station Illini Sports Network will carry the radio broadcast with the pregame show beginning at 10:30 a.m. CT. Calling the action will be Brian Barnhart (play-by-play), Kurt Kittner (color analyst) and Steve Kelly (pregame, halftime and postgame). The broadcast also can be heard on SIRIUS (94) XM (196) satellite radio.
Tickets are available for Saturday's game against Northwestern and can be purchased at the UI Athletic Ticket Office at Assembly Hall, by calling 1-866-ILLINI-1 or online at fightingillini.com.
The "Land of Lincoln" rivalry trophy will be up for grabs when the Illini open Big Ten play against Northwestern this Saturday in the university's 101st Homecoming game. The Illini have lost three straight conference openers since winning at Indiana, 27-14, in the 2007 Big Ten opener.
After Saturday's 23-20 win over Western Michigan, Illinois is now 4-0 for the first time since 1951, the program's last national championship season. That team started 7-0 en route to the Rose Bowl and a 9-0-1 overall record. The last time the Illini were undefeated heading into a Homecoming game was in 1964.
The Illini have won five in a row dating back to last season, matching Illinois' longest winning streak since 2007 and ranking as the fourth-longest current streak in the nation. Illinois has not won six straight games since the 2001 Big Ten Championship team won seven in a row, all during Big Ten play.
Illinois remained at No. 24 in this week's Associated Press poll and jumped into the USA Today coaches' poll for the first time this season at No. 22. When the Illini entered the AP Top 25 last week, it marked the program's first appearance in the AP rankings since Sept. 21, 2008.
Illinois ranks fifth nationally in rushing defense, allowing a Big Ten-best 56.5 ypg. The Illini have allowed a total of 226 rushing yards this season, which is less than Illinois' rushing average on offense (241.8 ypg).
The defense has not allowed a point following Illinois' six turnovers this season, while forcing nine takeaways that have led to 27 points. Following Illinois' 25 turnovers since the start of the 2010 season, the defense has allowed only 39 points (three TDs and six FGs).
Illinois has converted 18-of-19 red-zone chances into points this season (95 percent), scoring 12 TDs and six FGs on trips inside the 20, which ranks 16th nationally. In 2010, Illinois ranked third in the nation in red-zone scoring percentage, picking up points on 49 of its 52 trips inside the 20 (94 percent).
Illinois ranks eighth in the nation in third-down efficiency, converting 34-of-60 (.567) third downs during the first four weeks of 2011.
With only 15 penalties for 125 yards on the season, the Illini rank 10th nationally in fewest penalties committed (3.8 per game) and ninth in fewest penalty yards per game (31.3), leading the Big Ten in both categories. The Illini were penalty-free in the opener, the first time in 18 years that the Illini played a game with being flagged.
Sophomore QB Nathan Scheelhaase ranks 16th in the nation and second in the Big Ten in passing efficiency (166.22), completing 47-of-66 passes (71.2 percent) for 637 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. He also has rushed for 224 yards and two TDs. Scheelhaase has thrown 17 TDs against just three INTs over the last 11 games, with one of the INTs coming on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half against WMU.
Senior RB Troy Pollard is averaging a whopping 10.4 yards per carry while leading the Illini in rushing this season (260 yards on 25 carries). It marks the second highest rushing average in the nation for anyone with more than 20 carries.
RB Donovonn Young was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week after running for 100 yards on 12 carries (8.3 ypc), including a 14-yard TD run in the win over Western Michigan on Saturday.
Senior PK Derek Dimke earned Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors for the second time in his career after hitting all three of his field goals attempts (39, 35 and 21) against Western Michigan.
THE BIG TEN'S RUSHING TEAM
During the Ron Zook era (since 2005), Illinois leads the conference in rushing yards per game. The Illini's 206.7 yards per game (15,913 yards in 77 games) in the last six-plus seasons tops Wisconsin's 200.9 ypg (16,470 yards in 82 games) during that same time span.
Illinois' 241.8 ypg this season ranks 14th in the nation. The Illini have finished the season ranked in the top-20 nationally in rushing yards per game in four of the last five years.
Over 70 percent of Illinois' plays this season have been runs (197 rushes in 281 total offensive plays).
The Illini have led the conference in rushing in three of the last five years (2006, '07 and '10).
Illinois has produced three NFL running backs in the last five years. Pierre Thomas (Saints) and Rashard Mendenhall (Steelers) have both led their respective teams to the Super Bowl. Mikel Leshoure (Lions), a 2011 second round draft pick, will miss his entire rookie season after suffering a torn Achilles tendon during training camp.
Saturday's game marks the last of five straight home games to start the 2011 season. Illinois has eight total home games this season for the first time in the Memorial Stadium era and first time since 1903, when the Illini played nine home games. After last Saturday's victory, the Illini have an all-time record of 251-209-14 at Memorial Stadium.
ILLINOIS HOMECOMING FACTS
The first homecoming celebrated on Illinois' campus was on Oct. 15, 1910, which the Illini won 3-0 over Chicago. This year's Homecoming vs. Northwestern marks the 101st anniversary of that historic first.
Illinois has an all-time record of 43-55-2 in Homecoming games. This year will mark the 10th time overall and the first time since 1995 that the Illini have hosted Northwestern on Homecoming. Illinois is just 2-7 all-time in Homecoming games against the Wildcats, with the most recent meeting being a 17-14 NU victory in 1995.
The University of Illinois boasts being one of the first universities to celebrate Homecoming, a tradition on almost every college campus. It was conceived in 1909 by students C.F. Williams and W. Elmer Ekblaw, members of the Shield and Trident senior society. They joined with another society, Phoenix, to organize the three-day event.
For years, there has been a debate over which university had the first homecoming. Historians from various schools found research that puts Illinois among one of the first five universities to celebrate the Homecoming tradition. Baylor has documented proof of a formally named Homecoming celebration in 1909, but then took a six-year hiatus before celebrating the second event at the school in 1915. Northern Illinois had alumni events beginning in 1906, but didn't use the proper noun "Homecoming" until 1911. Indiana University renamed their 1909 Gala Day, Homecoming on Nov. 5, 1910, and Michigan began inviting alumni back to campus in 1897, but the formal name began on the Ann Arbor campus in 1916.
NORTHWESTERN SERIES NOTES
Saturday's game will be the 105th meeting between Illinois and Northwestern. Illinois leads the series 53-46-5 overall and 25-20-2 in games played in Champaign.
Illinois defeated the Wildcats in the most recent meeting, 48-27, last year at Wrigley Field in Chicago. NU won the last meeting in Champaign, 21-16, in 2009. The last Illini home win over the Wildcats came in the 2007 Rose Bowl season, 41-22.
This will be Ron Zook's seventh head-to-head contest against Northwestern. He is 2-4 versus the Wildcats. NU coach Pat Fitzgerald is 3-2 against the Illini in his first five seasons as head coach.
Northwestern offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Adam Cushing is the brother of former Illinois tight end Matt Cushing.
THE BATTLE FOR THE LAND OF LINCOLN TROPHY
This week, Illinois and Northwestern will play for the "Land of Lincoln" trophy in the third battle for the relatively new rivalry trophy. Illinois won the trophy last season with the 48-27 victory at Wrigley Field to tie the series at 1-1. The Land of Lincoln Trophy was chosen by fans of both schools in an online vote to replace the 62-year old Tomahawk Trophy.
Illinois and Northwestern played for the "Sweet Sioux" Tomahawk from 1947-2008. Illinois led the traditional trophy series by a 32-28-2 mark, but Northwestern won the final meeting for the Tomahawk with its 27-10 win in 2008. The Tomahawk was retired following the 2008 season.
HIGHLIGHTS AGAINST THE WILDCATS
Illinois is averaging 452.3 total yards and 293.8 rushing yards per game in the teams' last four meetings.
Led by Mikel Leshoure's record-breaking 330 yard performance, the Illini piled up 519 yards rushing in last year's win over NU at Wrigley Field, their most since posting a school-record 562 rushing yards against Illinois-Normal (Illinois State) on Sept. 16, 1944. Illinois had an incredible 224 rushing yards and three rushing TDs in the first quarter and a school-record 303 rushing yards at halftime. The Illini held the ball an amazing 41:16.
RB Jason Ford ran for 86 yards and a career-high three touchdowns and QB Nathan Scheelhaase ran for 97 yards in last year's victory.
LB Ian Thomas intercepted an Evan Watkins pass in last year's game and had five tackles and one TFL.
WR A.J. Jenkins had a 10-yard TD reception last year at Wrigley Field.
DB Steve Hull registered his first career QB sack in last year's victory over the `Cats.
PK Derek Dimke made his first career field goal in the 2009 game against NU.
DB Tavon Wilson registered 11 tackles, including a career-high 10 solo stops, against NU in 2009.
SCHEELHAASE PICKS UP WHERE HE LEFT OFF
Sophomore QB Nathan Scheelhaase is off to a fast start in 2011. He is completing over 71 percent of his passes and ranks 16th nationally in passing efficiency (166.22). The Davey O'Brien and Maxwell Award candidate also has rushed for 224 yards (4.0 ypc) and two TDs, giving him 1,092 career rushing yards.
Scheelhaase has made drastic improvement during his 17 games on the field. After tossing four touchdowns and seven interceptions in Illinois' first six games of 2010, Scheelhaase rebounded to throw 13 TD strikes against just one pick during the final seven games. When you factor in his 2011 numbers, he now has thrown 17 touchdowns and only three interceptions since the midpoint of 2010.
Scheelhaase has been outstanding in Illinois' 11 wins since the beginning of the 2010 season, completing 137-of-196 passes (69.9 percent) for 1,687 yards, 14 TDs and three INTs for a 162.7 efficiency rating. He also has rushed for 726 yards on 143 carries (5.1 ypc) and four TDs in those 11 games. For comparison, Scheelhaase is 65-of-134 (48.5 percent) for 775 yards, seven TDs and seven INTs for a 103.9 rating in Illinois' six losses.
JENKINS MAKING MARK ON RECORD BOOK
WR A.J. Jenkins is saving his best season for his last. The Biletnikoff Award candidate ranks second in the Big Ten and 17th nationally in receptions per game (7.0) and is third in the league in receiving yards per game (91.3).
Jenkins has at least one catch in 22 straight games. His 11 catches against Arkansas State on 9/3 were a career high, tied for the most ever in a season-opener by an Illini (David Williams had 11 against Northwestern on Sept. 1, 1984) and also tied for eighth-most in a single game in school history.
Jenkins' fast start to 2011 has propelled him onto a few UI career record lists. He currently ranks sixth in career TD receptions (13), seventh in career 100-yard receiving games (5) and ninth in career receiving yardage (1,521). He is approaching the top 10 in career receptions with 105 (needs five for 10th).
Fresh off a record-breaking 2010 season, the Illini offense has not let up this year. In 2011, the Illini are averaging 32.3 ppg, 423.8 ypg and 241.8 rushing ypg. Last season, the Illini broke school records for both total points scored (423) and points per game (32.53), and led the Big Ten in rushing (246.1 ypg).
The offense has exploded since the midpoint of 2010. During the first six games last year, the Illini averaged 21.3 points and 320.0 yards per game. In the 11 games since then, the Illini are averaging 38.5 ppg and 439.7 ypg.
Illinois has shown its ball-control ability early in 2011, holding the ball an average of 33:29, which ranks 13th nationally and second in the Big Ten in time of possession. The Illini dominated possession in the second half against Western Michigan, holding the ball for 22:13 after the break. Overall, Illinois has had nine scoring drives last at least 10 plays and eight last at least five minutes each.
Illinois' 53-point margin of victory against South Dakota State on Sept. 10 is its largest since 1944, when the Illini defeated Illinois-Normal (Illinois State), 79-6. Illinois' 56 points were its most at home since 2002, when the Illini scored 59 against Arkansas State.
While Illinois' rushing offense has remained dominant, the Illini are doing it by committee this year rather then relaying on one dominant runner like they did in 2007 (Rashard Mendenhall) and 2010 (Mikel Leshoure). Four different Illini have over 200 rushing yards on the season, and all four have scored at least one rushing TD.
Senior RB Troy Pollard leads the Illini ground attack with a team-high 260 yards on only 25 carries (10.4 ypc). A fifth-year senior, Pollard ran for a career-high 133 yards on 14 attempts (9.5 ypc) last week against Western Michigan, marking his second 100-yard effort in the last three games (101 vs. South Dakota State on 9/10).
QB Nathan Scheelhaase and WR A.J. Jenkins have connected 77 times since the start of the 2010 season. Only the Michigan State duo of Kirk Cousins and B.J. Cunningham have more completions during that span (79). Michigan's Denard Robinson and Roy Roundtree are third, connecting 63 times in that span.
Senior RB Jason Ford has 23 career rushing TDs, tying him with Mikel Leshoure, Ty Douthard and Red Grange for seventh on the UI career list. He needs just two more to move up to second place and is eight behind Howard Griffith's UI career record of 31. Ford currently ranks 19th on the UI career rushing list (1,577 yards).
Weak-side tackle Jeff Allen anchors the Illini offensive line once again. The senior has started every game since the fourth game of his freshman season, giving him a team-high 38 consecutive starts. Allen earned second team All-Big Ten honors while helping pave the way for the Big Ten's top rushing offense in 2010.
With Allen as the anchor, most of the offensive line is loaded with experience. Junior weak-side guard Hugh Thornton, junior center Graham Pocic and senior strong-side guard Jack Cornell all are returning starters from a team that led the Big Ten in rushing. The only new part is the strong-side tackle spot, where RS freshman Michael Heitz has started the first four games and played nearly every snap so far in 2011.
Redshirt freshman Simon Cvijanovic came up big for the Illini in the win over Western Michigan, playing the entire second half at weak-side tackle and helping the Illini to 184 second-half rushing yards. Cvijanovic, who had played just 17 snaps in his career prior to the game, filled in after starter Jeff Allen was disqualified from the game on the final play of the first half.
Illinois' three quarterbacks (Nathan Scheelhaase, Reilly O'Toole and Miles Osei) combined to complete 16-of-18 (.889) passes against South Dakota State, breaking the school record for single-game completion percentage. The previous record was 20-of-24 (.833) against Arkansas State on Sept. 14, 2002.
Wide receivers Jenkins (148 yards) and Darius Millines (119 yards) both went over 100 receiving yards against Arkansas State on Sept. 3, marking the first time that two Illini had at least 100 yards in the same game since Oct. 11, 2008, against Minnesota (Arrelious Benn  and Jenkins ).
The Illinois defense has forced at least one turnover in 19 consecutive games, dating back to the Nov. 14, 2009, game against Northwestern.
The Illinois defense came up big in the upset of #22 Arizona State with 12 TFLs, six sacks and three takeaways, while allowing just 14 points. A week after the Illini held them to 14 points, the Sun Devils put up 43 points on USC. ASU is averaging 42.7 ppg in its other three games this season.
Illinois held South Dakota State to just three points, 96 total yards and 25 rushing yards. It marked the first time since 1998 that the Illini kept an opponent under 100 total yards, when the Illini limited Middle Tennessee State to 69 yards. It also marked the first time in the last 13 games that the Illini held an opponent without a TD, dating back to Sept. 11, 2010, against Southern Illinois (35-3).
Illinois opponents have started five drives inside Illinois territory this season, but have scored just twice on those five drives (both touchdowns). In 2010, opponents started 23 regulation drives in plus territory, but the Illini defense allowed just three touchdowns and 11 field goals on those 23 drives.
Junior DB Terry Hawthorne collected nine tackles, including a career-high eight solos, three PBUs and one interception against Western Michigan. Hawthorne tied his previous best for PBUs, set at Cincinnati Nov. 27, 2009. The interception was his first of the season and third of his career. Hawthorne leads the Illini with four PBUs on the season and is tied for second on the team with 22 tackles.
Junior DE Whitney Mercilus has become a force on the defensive line this season. He leads the Big Ten and ranks sixth nationally in sacks (1.0 per game) and also has racked up 5.0 TFLs, five QB hurries, two forced fumbles and one PBU.
Sophomore LB Jonathan Brown was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after a dominant performance in the upset win over Arizona State. Brown had a hand in two of the three Illini takeaways against ASU, intercepting a Brock Osweiler pass in the third quarter and forcing an errant throw by Osweiler on Glenn Foster's first-quarter interception. Brown had career highs with 3.5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks, and also added seven tackles as the Illini held the high-powered ASU offense to just 14 points.
Senior LB Trulon Henry is leading the Illini and the Big Ten with two interceptions on the season, including a 27-yard pick-six against South Dakota State. Henry moved to the sam linebacker this season after starting 12 games at safety last season. He is the older brother of former Illini standout and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Arrelious Benn.
Junior DT Glenn Foster's interception in the Arizona State game was the first of his career. It also was the first interception by an Illini lineman since Doug Pilcher on Sept. 12, 2009, against Illinois State.
Senior linebacker Ian Thomas is back to the familiar role of middle linebacker for the 2011 season, registering 22 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, one sack and three QB hurries. Last year, Thomas played weak-side linebacker while current New Orleans Saint Martez Wilson held down the mike position. Playing in the middle isn't new for Thomas, as he led the team in tackles as the MLB in 2009 after Wilson suffered a season-ending neck injury.
Junior safety Supo Sanni returned to the field this season after missing all of last season with a ruptured Achilles. Sanni recorded a career-high six tackles, including a half-TFL, and forced a fumble in the season opener against Arkansas State and picked up his first career interception against South Dakota State.
Redshirt freshman LB Houston Bates was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week on Sept. 5 after racking up five tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and one fumble recovery against Arkansas State in his Illini debut.
THE SPECIAL TEAMS
Senior PK Derek Dimke remains perfect during 2011, hitting all six of his FG attempts and all 15 PATs. He has hit 35-of-40 field goals in his career (.875), which puts him atop the Illinois career FG percentage list and ranks fourth nationally among active kickers (minimum 15 games played and 20 made field goals).
A Lou Groza Award candidate, Dimke has made nine consecutive field goals dating back to the 2010 Texas Bowl. That ties him for the fifth-longest streak in school history and is four short of Mike Bass' UI record of 13.
Dimke is a perfect 70-of-70 on extra points in his career, making him one of only two players in Illinois history to be perfect with at least 65 PAT attempts.
With 33 points in 2011, Dimke has raised his career total to 175, which ranks him 10th in UI history. He needs 11 points to match Red Grange's ninth-place total of 186 career points. Dimke's 35 career field goals rank seventh in Illinois history, three behind Dan Beaver's sixth-place total of 38.
Dimke also handles kickoff duties for the Illini. He's had five touchbacks in 26 kickoffs and has a 64.8-yard average this season. Last year, he booted 22 touchbacks and had a 62.0 average in 79 kickoffs.
True-freshman Justin DuVernois has taken over punting duties after the loss of 2010 first-team All-Big Ten punter Anthony Santella to graduation. He has punted 11 times for a 38.3-yard average this season, including a long of 48, five fair catches and one inside the 20, and also had one free kick for 49 yards following a safety.
DuVernois is one of just seven true-freshman starting punters in the nation.
Sophomore WR Ryan Lankford serves as both the back-up punter and primary punt returner. A rugby-style punter, Lankford has kicked three times with a long of 50 yards and has returned eight punts for a total of 19 yards. He the first Illinois player since Bob Bess in 1969 to both punt and return a punt in the same season.
Sophomore Tim Russell has taken over holding duties for 2011 with the graduation of Santella.
Junior Zak Pedersen is in his second year handling long snapping duties for the Fighting Illini. He earned a scholarship prior to this season after serving three years as a walk-on.