Football: No love lost between Northwestern, Illinois

The rivalry between Northwestern and Illinois has intensified on the field in recent years. The Wildcats have lost two straight in the series and have not won the Land of Lincoln Trophy since their triumph over the Fighting Illini in the 2009 matchup.

Daily file photo by Paul Geringer

The rivalry between Northwestern and Illinois has intensified on the field in recent years. The Wildcats have lost two straight in the series and have not won the Land of Lincoln Trophy since their triumph over the Fighting Illini in the 2009 matchup.

Rohan Nadkarni, Assistant Sports Editor

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Last year’s game against Illinois ended about as poorly as possible for Northwestern.

After a defeat in which the Wildcats blew an 18-point lead in the third quarter and a four-point lead with 13 seconds remaining, the Fighting Illini added insult to injury when they declared themselves “The State of Illinois’ Undefeated Big Ten Team” on the scoreboard after the game, while fans sang along to “Sweet Home Chicago” — perceived retorts to NU’s recent marketing campaigns.

The end of the game from last season represented only one element of an in-state rivalry that has added some serious spice in the past few seasons as the Fighting Illini have rattled off back-to-back wins.

“The way people get excited about victories are up to them,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said when reminded of Illinois’ end-of-game celebration. “This is a rivalry based on respect. The past couple years we haven’t played very well. There’s no question this is a huge rivalry game for us.”

In 2010, the two squads battled in a memorable game at Wrigley Field, with the Cats dropping that contest as well, 48-27. The game, slightly marred by one end zone out of play, raised the national profile of the rivalry.

“I think the rivalry with Northwestern started back with the Wrigley game,” Illinois center Graham Pocic said at Big Ten Media Days in July. “That really got it going again. They had the whole ‘Chicago’s Big Ten Team’ motto and all that. We have bunch of guys from Chicago on the team. A lot of guys weren’t too excited about seeing that.”

On the field, the rivalry may be a little more one-sided this season, with the Fighting Illini struggling to a 2-9 record so far in 2012. Illinois is also 0-4 on the road and has yet to win a conference game, sporting a 0-7 record in the Big Ten. With no bowl game in sight for the Fighting Illini, knocking off their in-state rival would be a satisfying end to an otherwise lost season.

For the Cats, despite being eliminated from a Legends Division championship with their loss to Michigan, the final game of the season will put them in a position for a prestigious bowl game. With a win, NU would be in line for a berth in the Outback Bowl, needing help from a Wisconsin loss to help secure the bid. Otherwise, the Gator Bowl seems like a likely destination.

NU should be able to attack Illinois offensively. The Fighting Illini are ranked 84th in the country for allowing points, allowing 30.5 points per game. The Cats are 55th in scoring at 29.8 points per game.

Redshirt junior running back Venric Mark, who Fitzgerald said should be healthy to play Saturday, could be in line for another big game. The Cats average 221.2 rushing yards per game, 16th in the country.

Illinois has given up at least 30 points in three of its last five games. Despite statistics and records pointing a gloomy picture of the Fighting Illini, Fitzgerald knows the Cats’ rival will enter the game prepared to win.

“You can throw the records out and throw everything out when you play in rivalry games,” Fitzgerald said. “They’ve got a very talented football team.”

Fitzgerald said he thinks the two teams on the field are very different from the two that lined up last season, but players who experienced the defeat a year ago still want to erase the memories of that game.

“I just remember the feeling of that loss,” sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell said. “It was a game we thought we should’ve won. It was a series of bad events. We’re looking to take care of that this time around.”

The Cats can take care of business by helping themselves on third down.

NU only converted 3-of-14 third downs against Michigan State. Its defense also allowed the Spartans to gain first downs on eight of their 17 third down chances. The Cats’ defense still played one of its better games of the season, picking up a critical stop at the end of the game, as well as forcing four turnovers and scoring a touchdown.

Although the rivalry and state bragging rights behind this week’s game may bring an added buzz, NU remains focused on improving itself as opposed to fixating on its opponent.

“There’s a lot of energy going around,” junior kicker Jeff Budzien said. “The coaches and players are using that energy here in the film room and in the weight room working hard. We have the utmost respect for (Illinois).”

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