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updated: 9/30/2011 9:39 PM

Breaking down today's big Illinois-Northwestern tilt

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  • Illinois offensive linesman Simon Cvijanovic (68) blocks Western Michigan defensive end Deauntay Legrier (36) while Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (2) looks to pass last week in Champaign.

      Illinois offensive linesman Simon Cvijanovic (68) blocks Western Michigan defensive end Deauntay Legrier (36) while Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (2) looks to pass last week in Champaign.
    Associated Press

  • Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa runs for a short gain against Minnesota during the first half of an NCAA football game, Saturday Oct. 2, 2010 in Minneapolis. Persa ran for a team high 99 yards on the day as Northwestern won 29-28. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)

      Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa runs for a short gain against Minnesota during the first half of an NCAA football game, Saturday Oct. 2, 2010 in Minneapolis. Persa ran for a team high 99 yards on the day as Northwestern won 29-28. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)

 

As long as there has been college football and homecoming, Big Ten schools have tried to time their homecoming festivities with Northwestern's visit.

Illinois and Indiana (but not Iowa) coincided this month's celebrations for the weekends when the Wildcats show up.

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In the 24th-ranked Illini's case, why not pick on the Wildcats? Perhaps they envision repeating last year's meeting at Wrigley Field.

The only downside to that thorough 48-27 victory on Nov. 20? Northwestern arrives at Memorial Stadium (11 a.m., ESPN2) more determined than ever to ruin someone's homecoming.

"You take pride in what you do," said NU senior linebacker Bryce McNaul. "And especially playing college football, there's a lot of ego involved and a lot of pride."

Between the ramifications of last year's rumble and the realization that this is the first Big Ten opener between Illinois and Northwestern since 1984, it has been years since this rivalry felt so alive.

So what might happen today? Let's break it down.

When Northwestern's spread offense is on the field:

Dan Persa's return after 10 months and 18 days away cannot be underestimated.

Not only will the fifth-year senior quarterback allow the Wildcats to stretch the field vertically with accurate throws -- something sophomore backup Kain Colter can't do at this stage of his career -- NU benefits from the chance to spot the lightning-quick Colter all over the field.

Illinois' secondary won't be able to come up so quickly to stop the rush with the knowledge Colter might throw the ball.

As for NU's overall strategy, Illinois defensive ends Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan headline a crew that leads the Big Ten in sacks (13) and tackles for loss (32).

It's imperative for the Wildcats to steal a page from Western Michigan's attack last week and riddle the Illini with short, quick passes.

Not only does that chew up clock, it serves as the best method to preserve Persa's health.

When Illinois' multi-faceted offense is on the field:

Because Illinois bludgeoned Northwestern's defense for 519 rushing yards last season, it's easy to guess offensive coordinator Paul Petrino follows last year's pattern and dials up a half-dozen new run-game schemes to mess with the Wildcats.

Last year, for example, Petrino threw guard Hugh Thornton into the backfield as an occasional fullback to re-emphasize Illinois' physical dominance.

The Wildcats' front seven will feature just two of the same starters (DE Vince Browne and DT Jack DiNardo) as last year's game.

NU believes its current group is stronger and quicker than last year's unit, which would go a long way toward dealing with Illinois' four-pronged rushing attack.

Northwestern's best chance is to overload the interior -- as Western Michigan did last week -- and force the Illini to run outside or make Nathan Scheelhaase win the game with his bruised shoulder.

After each of the last two games, Illini coach Ron Zook has suggested Scheelhaase wasn't as sharp as they've come to expect. The Wildcats might as well try to find out whether he runs that streak to three games.

Special teams:

Here's where Illinois senior Derek Dimke gives his side a big edge.

Dimke, who's so relaxed he spent the waning minutes of the Western Michigan game singing lyrics from "Sweet Caroline" and Hot Chelle Rae's "Tonight Tonight" instead of fretting about an impending field-goal attempt, ranks as the most successful kicker in Illini annals.

He has made 88 percent of his field goals during his career and all 21 PATs this season.

Conversely, new Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien has made 1 of 3 field-goal tries in his career -- including a 26-yard miss two weeks ago at Army.

The Wildcats' best chance for an advantage comes from returner Venric Mark, who ranks 18th nationally with 28.9 yards per kick return. That meshes well with Illinois' 92nd-ranked kick-return coverage (24.0 avg.).

The prediction: Northwestern has won six of the last eight meetings, but Illinois prevails 27-24 on the strength of Dimke's right leg.

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