NU, Illinois vie for Sweet Sioux

Tania Ganguli and Tania Ganguli

Big Ten teams only play eight conference opponents each year, but for the Wildcats there has been one constant since 1927 — Illinois.

Almost 20 years into the rivalry, the two schools’ student newspapers raised the stakes. In 1945 the in-state rivals began playing for the Sweet Sioux trophy.

The first two years, Sweet Sioux was a wooden carving of a Native American, but it was stolen from Northwestern in 1946, according to Illinois media services.

But NU’s media guide has a different version. It says that the Sweet Sioux was replaced by the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk because of transportation problems.

Whatever the reason, the two teams have played for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk since 1947, and it has resided in Champaign, Ill., for the last two years.

But this year the Cats (5-6, 3-4 Big Ten) are playing for more than a trophy, they’re playing for a chance to have their fourth-best season in more than 30 years and become bowl eligible.

This year the injury-riddled Fighting Illini (1-10, 0-7) have managed their worst record since 1997, when they didn’t win a game all season. The Illini have yet to win a Big Ten game and their only victory came over Division I-AA Illinois State.

“I think the biggest incentive is for us to get a Big Ten win and send our seniors out with a win,” Illinois coach Ron Turner said. “Give our young guys an opportunity to have that taste headed into the offseason.”

Illinois has had 17 players injured this season, including starting running back E.B. Halsey, who missed the last three games with a sprained knee, and starting wide receiver Kelvin Hayden, who missed two games with a sprained ankle. Both players will probably play Saturday.

But the Illini have had a bye week to heal and NU cornerback Marvin Ward knows what kind of team will be waiting for them in Champaign.

“A team that doesn’t want us to go to a bowl game,” Ward said. “They’ll give us their best shot.”

Safety Torri Stuckey said he knows the mentality because that’s exactly what the Cats were thinking in 2001 when Illinois was poised for a Sugar Bowl berth.

“We lost to Bowling Green right before we played them (in 2001),” Stuckey said. “Our whole thing was that we wanted to spoil it for them.”

While Illinois’ wounded are recovering, the Cats’ injured are recovering too. NU coach Randy Walker said that with sophomore Terrell Jordan and Wright closer to full strength, the Cats expect to run a lot.

Walker continues to emphasize that in order to beat a team that’s out to knock the Cats down, NU will have to win the turnover ratio, something that has been a problem recently for the team.

The Cats beat Penn State and Wisconsin in what Walker said weren’t “works of art.” And after a fumble-filled performance against Purdue, the Cats have become what running back Jason Wright calls “a virtual fumbling machine.”

“We’ve been on the edge for the last few weeks,” Walker said. “We’ve used up our luck.”