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Trahan: A rivalry begins to bud between Northwestern and Illinois

Kevin Trahan and Kevin Trahan

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As time ran out on Northwestern’s last-ditch attempt to salvage a win against Illinois, Memorial Stadium erupted after one of the most exciting games the intra-state rivalry has ever seen.

It was a game filled with highs and lows for both teams, including a remarkable debut outing for star Wildcats quarterback Dan Persa, an 18-point comeback for Illinois and ultimately a 38-35 Fighting Illini win.

As Illinois celebrated on the field, the band played “Sweet Home Chicago” and a banner on the scoreboard read “The State of Illinois’ Undefeated Team.”

It would be tough to find anyone on the NU sideline who could draw a positive from that scene, but the excitement, disappointment and atmosphere made the “Land of Lincoln” game look like something new – a real rivalry – and that is good news for the Wildcats.

For years, the Northwestern-Illinois game has meant little more than any other Big Ten game. Even though the game was designated by the Big Ten as a “protected crossover” when the conference switched to a divisional alignment, it wasn’t considered anything special.

The Cats have long sought a different rival in order to fit in with the Big Ten’s rivalry-and-tradition-filled landscape.

The most notable push has been toward Iowa, a team coach Pat Fitzgerald recently told students at a Wildside event is the one he likes to beat the most.

The Cats have had plenty of recent success against the Hawkeyes. They beat Iowa teams that were ranked No. 4 and No. 13 respectively in 2009 and 2010. However, fair or not, Iowa fans consider NU a pesky little brother, not a rival, and a rivalry can’t be a one-way street.

Besides the Hawkeyes, there aren’t many other choices:

Michigan? Geographically and competitively, it would never make sense.

Wisconsin? It makes sense geographically, but that’s where the similarities end.

The Fighting Illini are in the same boat as the Cats. Illinois has its rivalry with Indiana, but that’s more for basketball. There’s the Illibuck trophy for the Ohio State game, but that trophy – a wooden turtle named Illy – may be the biggest laughing stock in college sports.

See where this is going?

An Illinois-Northwestern rivalry has always made sense in that the schools are in-state foes and have similar fan bases.

Now, however, it has finally found its key ingredient – common resentment.

The rivalry has grown ever since NU started its “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” campaign. The Fighting Illini took offense to that last year and showed it by drubbing the Wildcats 48-27 at Wrigley Field.

Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson added after the game, “Today we proved we are Chicago’s Big Ten team.”

In the week leading up to the 2011 game, Fighting Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino expressed his anger at Fitzgerald’s alleged comments about NU not recruiting Illinois’ type of players.

There’s bulletin board material for both teams, just what every rivalry needs.

Don’t expect this game to ever turn into Michigan-Ohio State. But for the first time, the Land of Lincoln game is more than just a game on the schedule.

And regardless of which side wins in a given year, that’s a good thing for both of the state of Illinois’ Big Ten teams.

Sports writer Kevin Trahan covers the Wildcats for Scout.com.

He can be reached at kevintrahan2015@u.northwestern.edu

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