Football: For Northwestern, rivalry game with Illinois becomes one-game playoff


Daily file photo by Zack Laurence

Godwin Igwebuike dives for a tackle. The junior safety leads the Wildcats in tackles with 95.

Tim Balk, Managing Editor


Northwestern enters its season finale Saturday against Illinois in the same position as the last time the Wildcats hosted the Fighting Illini at Ryan Field: needing a win over the in-state rival to become bowl eligible.

In 2014, NU was the favorite in the Thanksgiving weekend contest, but fell apart defensively in a 47-33 loss that sent the team home for the holidays and Illinois to its only bowl appearance in the last five years. This time around, only the Cats (5-6, 4-4 Big Ten) are playing for the postseason as the Fighting Illini (3-8, 2-6) saw their bowl eligibility hopes vanish in a loss to Wisconsin two weeks ago.

But NU can’t afford a slip up like 2014 when a blowout fifth win at Purdue (sound familiar?) had the team momentarily looking bowl-bound.

“That was obviously a tragic situation,” junior safety Godwin Igwebuike said, referencing the season-ending loss to Illinois. “We lacked some passion even in that game on top of people being banged up, but I don’t expect that to happen this time around.”

The annual NU-Illinois game is, after all, not just any game. The winner takes home the hat-shaped Land of Lincoln Trophy and can claim in-state superiority for a full year. The rivalry has been brought to some unusual venues in recent times — Soldier Field last November and Wrigley Field in 2010.

At times, the results have been unpredictable, such as in the Wrigley Field battle when Illinois entered the game 5-5 and proceeded to shred previously 7-3 NU to the tune of 519 rushing yards.

“Any time you play your rival, you throw the records out,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald’s team has generally been unpredictable this fall as well. The Cats played impressively in wins at Iowa and Michigan State, nearly knocked off now-No. 2 Ohio State on the road, yet also struggled in last week’s loss to Minnesota and in an embarrassing early season loss to Illinois State.

“It’s been a choose-your-own-adventure book,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve got a pretty good idea of what I’m going to get on chapter one and chapter two, and maybe even chapter three, which are the first three days of the week … and then come the weekend, I kind of go to chapter five for a win, and I have gone to chapter six for a loss.”

For NU to get that all important sixth win, it will have to go to chapter five against Illinois.

The meaning of the game extends beyond simply the rivalry, the trophy and the opportunity to earn a bowl bid. For seniors like offensive lineman Eric Olson, it represents a chance to extend their college football career.

“It’s a one-game playoff,” Olson said. “We win, we get another month together. We lose, the season’s over.”

In 2014, the season ended with a loss to Illinois at Ryan Field. The seniors’ season ended. The team headed home for the holidays.

Igwebuike said he has no wish to repeat that.

“If you’re not excited for this game, you might as well just go home right now,” Igwebuike said. “I know I ain’t got nothing to do at home. I’ve got family, but my friends are gone. I’m going to be lonely. So we’ve got to go ahead and get this dub.”

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