Preview: In-state rivalry resumes

Matt Forman

Coach Pat Fitzgerald stresses going 1-0 each week and then flushing the good and the bad.

Clichés aside, the implications of Saturday’s game will be felt beyond its outcome. Northwestern (8-3, 4-3 Big Ten) is hoping to go 1-0 for the ninth time, which only four other teams have achieved in school history. Illinois (5-6, 3-4) is playing for its sixth win of the season and a potential bowl berth.

The winner of the rivalry game will be awarded the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk Trophy.

“There’s a lot of emotion going into this game,” senior wide receiver Eric Peterman said. “They’ve got to win or go home. So they’re gonna bring their A-game, and we need to bring our A-game.”

For the Wildcats, bringing their A-game will come down to one of the program’s pillars: The Force. One of Fitzgerald’s five F’s, The Force encompasses running the ball and stopping the run to control the game.

A season ago, the Illini racked up 321 yards and four rushing touchdowns. They also held the Cats to 69 yards and one touchdown on the ground.

Last week, NU rushed for just 59 yards on 37 carries while allowing Michigan to total 181 yards on 46 carries. If there is such a discrepancy this week, the Cats might be in trouble.

“Running the ball all starts with attitude,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re going to run the football and we need to do that to win.”

Without seniors Tyrell Sutton and Omar Conteh, sophomore running back Stephen Simmons has carried the load, but averaged only 2.7 yards per carry. Simmons said he has to “get going” for the team to have success. Illinois allows an average of four yards per rush, good for third-worst in the Big Ten.

On the defensive side of the football, sophomore linebacker Nate Williams said the team simply has to tackle well to contain an explosive rushing attack that averages 173.7 yards per game. His coach agreed.

“You’ve got to stop the run to win Big Ten football games,” Fitzgerald said.

Beyond The Force, Fitzgerald stressed the importance of protecting the football and forcing turnovers. NU is 6-0 this season when tying or winning the turnover battle. Illinois is one of the most turnover-prone teams in the conference.

“It’s such a game-changer when you get a lot of turnovers,” senior defensive tackle John Gill said. “It’s been shown that when we get turnovers at key times, it can make the game.”

In Illinois’ last three games, it has turned the ball over eight times.

The best news for NU fans? Since 1993, when Fitzgerald was a freshman, the team that entered the game with the better record has won 14 of 15 times.

The biggest storyline for Saturday’s final regular season contest – the senior class. NU will honor 23 seniors for their dedication and investment over the last four or five years.

For the seniors, their last memory of Ryan Field will come as they walk off the field Saturday evening.

“This is a big opportunity for us,” Gill said. “I definitely do want to walk off a winner.”

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