Chicago Colleges: Sonny Dykes

Schedule analysis: Northwestern

August, 12, 2013
Preseason practice is in full swing, and kickoff is just around the corner. To get you ready, we're analyzing every Big Ten team's complete 2013 schedule.

Northwestern is up next in the rundown ...

Nonconference opponents (with 2012 records)

Aug. 31: at Cal (3-9)
Sept. 7: Syracuse (8-5)
Sept. 14: Western Michigan (4-8)
Sept. 21: Maine (5-6)

Legends Division games

Oct. 19: Minnesota
Oct. 26: at Iowa
Nov. 2: at Nebraska
Nov. 16: Michigan
Nov. 23: Michigan State

Crossover games

Oct. 5: Ohio State
Oct. 12: at Wisconsin
Nov. 30: at Illinois

No plays

Penn State

Gut-check game: Ohio State will be the measuring stick for a veteran Northwestern team trying to legitimize itself as a Big Ten title contender following a 10-win season in 2012. The Wildcats will be favored in all of their non-league games, so there's a good chance both teams enter Ryan Field at 4-0, setting up the most anticipated home game of Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. Ohio State hasn't just dominated the series (59-14-1); the Buckeyes have pulverized Northwestern in many of the games. The teams meet for the first time since 2008.

Trap game: After opening league play with Leaders Division heavyweights Ohio State and Wisconsin, Northwestern returns home to face Minnesota. The Wildcats have won three straight and five of the past six against the Gophers, but Jerry Kill's squad should be improved in Year 3, especially along both lines. Northwestern needs to secure a win at home before heading back out on the road for consecutive games.

Snoozer: Northwestern has a decent non-league schedule, but Maine doesn't do much to move the needle. The Bears have had losing records in three of the past four seasons. Their only win against an FBS opponent came against Mississippi State in 2004.

Noncon challenge: It's between Syracuse and Cal, and while the Orange were the better team in 2012, Cal could be the trickier game. Northwestern must visit Berkeley and play a late-night contest (9:30 p.m. CT kickoff) against a Bears squad that is somewhat of a mystery under first-year coach Sonny Dykes. Although Cal is extremely young, Jeff Tedford left some talent behind and Dykes' up-tempo offense could test Northwestern.

Telltale stretch: There are really two of them, although the second carries more weight in Northwestern's quest to reach Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game. The Wildcats open Big Ten play against Ohio State (Oct. 5) and Wisconsin (Oct. 12) -- at least one has held a share of the Big Ten title every year since 2004. They then open November with division challenges against Nebraska (Nov. 2), Michigan (Nov. 16) and Michigan State (Nov. 23). After blowing late leads in close losses to Michigan and Nebraska last season, Northwestern will seek a different result in games that could decide the division champion.

Analysis: Northwestern's Big Ten schedule undoubtedly gets tougher in 2013, as Ohio State returns for the first time since 2008 and Wisconsin is back for the first time since 2010. The Wildcats don't play Penn State, but they miss both Indiana and Purdue, two of the league's weaker teams last season. There are few gimmes in league play, which makes games like Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois virtual must-wins if Northwestern intends to reach the next level it referenced throughout the offseason.

The non-league schedule is similar to last year's, perhaps a little weaker as both Cal and Syracuse -- along with Western Michigan -- went through head coaching changes. If Northwestern can at least split its first two Big Ten contests, it should enter November with a chance to make noise in the division. Fitzgerald's teams typically perform much better in November (15-9) than October (12-17), so a good start to league play is critical.

More schedule analysis

Legends: Iowa | Michigan | Minnesota | Nebraska

Leaders: Purdue | Penn State | Illinois | Ohio State


Illinois defense gets chance for redemption

September, 19, 2012
Illinois' defense entered the season pegged as one of the Big Ten's best, a distinction linebacker Jonathan Brown thinks the Illini still merit.

"We've got the best front seven in the country," Brown told reporters last week. "I firmly believe that."

His comments came four days after Illinois surrendered 45 points and 510 yards in a blowout loss to Arizona State. The Illini had communication problems early and missed tackles throughout the game. Perhaps the only positive is that the contest kicked off so late (10:30 p.m. ET) that most of the country missed it.

The debacle in the desert would seem to counter Brown's claim. Then again, it could be just an aberration -- a bad night after a long trip. Illinois has allowed just seven points in its two victories.

[+] EnlargeIllinois' Akeem Spence
Bradley Leeb/US PRESSWIREAkeem Spence and the Illinois defense have allowed seven total points in two victories, but allowed 45 in a loss to Arizona State.
What is the real Illini defense?

The beauty is we'll soon find out, thanks to the schedule.

After a game that revealed virtually nothing -- last week's 44-0 smashing of woeful Charleston Southern -- Saturday night's test against Louisiana Tech figures to show much more about the Illinois defense. Louisiana Tech's offensive numbers, despite a small sample size (two games), are quite staggering:
  • Fifth nationally in total offense (603.5 ypg)
  • Third in scoring (56 ppg)
  • Ninth in rushing (289 ypg)
  • 17th in passing (314.5 ypg)
  • Tied for 15th in offensive plays per game (83)

"They’re not complicated with what they do," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. "They just do what they do very well."

The final number might get Illinois' attention more than any other. Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes wants his offense, led by senior quarterback Colby Cameron and freshman running backs Tevin King and Kenneth Dixon, operating at an accelerated tempo, and the Bulldogs ran 94 players in their opening win against Houston.

Arizona State coach Todd Graham also preaches a quick pace on offense, and although his Sun Devils ran only 67 plays against the Illini, they capitalized on a defense that looked out of sorts, especially early in the game.

"It was just a lack of communication," defensive tackle Akeem Spence told "Guys were looking at the wrong person, getting the wrong call."

Illinois simplified the signaling issue and worked to prepare for Tech's pace this week. Coaches put players through "fastball" periods in practice, where Spence estimates six plays were run in a span of a minute or so.

They also went over rotations and substitution patterns for an opponent that makes it difficult to shuffle players on and off of the field.

"It's just guys talking," Spence said, "making sure one another is on the same page, and just getting on the small things not to get us beat. Make sure the guys have the right call. If we're all wrong, and we all have the wrong call, then we're all right. ... When they're going so fast, you can't really take guys out, and you don't want to get any stupid penalties, 12 men on the field, substitution penalties.

"I think we took the proper measures to get ready for these guys."

According to Spence, Illinois will look to take away King, Dixon and the run game and make Louisiana Tech one-dimensional. Like Brown, Spence hasn't lost any confidence in the front seven, which he thinks still can be elite.

Saturday night, they have the chance to prove it.

"We've got to execute a lot better than we did when we played Arizona State," Spence said. "If we do that, we'll have a better outcome. A lot better outcome."