No Sweet Sioux for you, Illini

Tania Ganguli

One Big Ten win in the last two seasons.

That’s what Illinois (3-7, 1-6 Big Ten) is looking at if it loses to Northwestern (5-5, 4-3) on Saturday at Ryan Field.

The annual Land of Lincoln Battle doesn’t garner the same hype as other rivalry games, but it’s very real to the Wildcats.

“There’s a picture that Coach (Pat) Fitz(gerald) shows us where Illinois came to our house and they went up to our Wildcat (statue) and started waving their flag around our Wildcat,” senior linebacker John Pickens said. “You can throw out all the records, no matter if they’re 7-0 or 1-6. It doesn’t matter. It’s like any other rivalry game.”

Losing would dash the Cats’ bowl hopes, so they’re making sure not to overlook the Big Ten bottom feeder.

“They’ve been close to Michigan; they were down four to Purdue at halftime,” NU junior quarterback Brett Basanez said.

Plus, Illinois’ one conference win was over Indiana — a team NU needed overtime to beat.

The Cats will be facing a young Illinois team that starts 11 underclassmen. Freshman quarterback Brad Bower will get the start this week, but he has split time with sixth-year senior John Beutjer all season.

Bower and Beutjer have nearly identical completion percentages, but Beutjer averages 135.2 yards per game, while Bower averages 94.

Ilinois’ passing game took a hit when it lost Ade Adeyamo to a broken leg he suffered against Purdue.

But the Illinois ground attack is a bit more dangerous.

Illinois’ top two rushers are sophomores Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey. The two rush for an average of 126.2 yards per game, but against a tough Wisconsin defense, they could only garner 42 yards on the ground.

“We didn’t play our best against Michigan’s power running play, and Illinois runs the same exact play, so I’m sure we’ll see repetitions of that this week,” Pickens said.

The Cats’ offensive line hopes the game will be like last year, when NU ran the ball on every down of the second half. That resulted in 444 yards on the ground, and two NU running backs gained more than 150 yards in the 37-20 NU victory.

“That was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a game,” senior offensive lineman Matt Ulrich said. “Running the ball is what offensive linemen live for. I’m sure it’ll be just as fun this year.”

Illinois’ run defense has gotten slightly better this year, allowing 198.2 yards per game compared to last year’s 223 yards per game.

Winning on Saturday will give the Cats their first undefeated Big Ten campaign at home since 1996, when they won a share of the Big Ten title.

A victory will also allow NU to retain control of the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk, the trophy the teams have competed for since 1947.

“It’s Illinois bragging rights for the next year,” Ulrich said. “We have seniors that want to win this game. It means something for this program. It’s special. It’s our trophy. We want to keep that Sweet Sioux.”

Reach Tania Ganguli at [email protected]