Game Preview: Land of Lincoln on the line in Northwestern’s trip to Illinois

Danny Daly

When in-state rivals Northwestern and Illinois take the field, there’s always something more at stake than bragging rights or a trophy. The game between the Wildcats and Illini has been played in November for the last decade, and historically the two teams have faced off late in the season more often than not.

That means at least one of them is usually fighting for a Big Ten title or bowl berth, or merely to keep their postseason dreams alive.

“It’s a battle for us each and every year,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They’ve done a lot of nice things down there at Memorial Stadium, and it’s going to be a tough task.”

This year is no different. NU (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten) enters Saturday’s matchup looking to solidify its bowl standing, needing another win to guarantee a 13th game. Meanwhile, the Illini (3-6, 2-5) hope to stave off a seventh loss, which would eliminate them from bowl contention.

The situation was similar last year, when NU prevailed 27-10 to drop Illinois’ record to 5-7. Roles were reversed the previous season – the Illini’s victory secured their Rose Bowl berth, and the Cats stayed home for the holidays.

“It’s been a pretty intense rivalry,” junior linebacker Quentin Davie said. “It really sank in for me the 2007 year, when we had to win to go to a bowl and they went ahead and beat us.”

Both teams are playing as well as they have all season, coming off road upset victories last weekend. While NU knocked off then-No. 4 Iowa 17-10, Illinois won 35-32 at Minnesota. The Illini also steamrolled Michigan 38-13 the previous Saturday.

Like NU, Illinois has dealt with quarterback injuries. Senior starter Juice Williams left in the first half against Minnesota and was replaced by redshirt freshman Jacob Charest, who threw for 185 yards and one touchdown.

Earlier in the week, coach Ron Zook was “cautiously optimistic” that Williams would play this weekend. But if Williams can’t go, Fitzgerald doesn’t expect the change to Charest to be a significant drop-off.

“There’s obviously a difference from the standpoint of experience, but I was really impressed by Jacob,” Fitzgerald said.

Speed will be an asset for Illinois on both sides of the ball. Their receivers, led by junior Arrelious Benn, are known for their quickness and athleticism.

And even though the defense is ranked 91st nationally in yards allowed per game, it can be dangerous. The Illini forced five turnovers in their last two wins combined.

“Their defense is a fast group,” senior wide receiver Zeke Markshausen said. “Their corners are pretty good, you’ve got fast kids out there.”

One of NU’s primary concerns will be maintaining its level of intensity after a season-altering victory last week. To avoid a letdown, the team is focusing on its desire for an even better performance.

“It goes back to what coach Walker used to say about eating the Snickers bar, you should never be satisfied,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re not satisfied, we believe we can and we will play better.”[email protected]