Football: Streaking Wildcats prepare for rivalry week against rebuilding Illinois


Daily file photo by Noah Frick-Alofs

Brad North leads the Wildcats onto the field. The senior center and NU are looking to extend their winning streak at Illinois this weekend.

Ben Pope, Reporter


A win over Illinois on Saturday would give Northwestern almost twice as many Big Ten wins during its ongoing winning streak as the Fighting Illini have accumulated over the past three seasons combined.

That’s a sobering testament to the state of the rivalry, which No. 23 NU (8-3, 6-2 Big Ten) has dominated lately. Since 2003, the Wildcats have had an equal-or-better record than their southern rivals in 11 of 14 seasons and won the head-to-head matchup 10 times. They’ve already secured another victory this year in the former category; the latter will be determined this week.

The Cats’ players declined to call out Illinois’ struggles Monday, with junior guard Tommy Doles saying that the Fighting Illini “are Big Ten football players, so we absolutely respect the guys that are across from us.”

But all data suggest that Saturday’s matchup will be rather lopsided. Illinois (2-9, 0-8) enters the weekend the loser of nine straight games overall and 11 straight Big Ten games dating back to 2016, including a 52-14 demolition at the hands of Ohio State last week. NU, meanwhile, has won six straight to climb into second in the division.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald focused his comments mainly on the long-term vision of Illinois coach Lovie Smith, a longtime friend.

“He’s put together the plan to build a program,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s playing a lot of young guys, as many as we’ve seen all year. They’ve stayed the course with their plan, and that’s what great coaches do.”

Approximately 10 freshmen will start for the Fighting Illini on Saturday — 11 if freshman quarterback Cam Thomas returns from injury and makes his second career start — because of Smith’s rebuilding strategy.

Smith said Monday that Thomas, who gradually took over the starting job from Jeff George Jr. in October but has missed the last two games, is likely to play barring any mid-week setbacks. Thomas has completed just 14 career passes but is averaging 5.5 yards per carry this year, demonstrating the kind of scrambling ability the Cats have struggled against at times.

“There’s some flux there at quarterback, so we’ll have to prepare for multiple guys there,” Fitzgerald said. “Cam’s a true dual-threat young man that they can do a lot of different things with.”

Fitzgerald also praised Illinois’ defense for its physicality and for holding four straight opponents — prior to Ohio State — to fewer than 30 points. The statistics agree that the defense has been the team’s strongest unit: ESPN’s efficiency ratings rank it a below-average 91st in the country, but well above the 120th-ranked Illinois offense.

Nevertheless, NU’s 63rd-ranked offense and 36th-ranked defense both appear to be in another league, and oddsmakers agree. The Cats are currently 16-point favorites, and if that line holds, it’ll be the most they have been favored by in road game since 2001.

With the matchup — at least on paper — seemingly so imbalanced, both coaches have taken to the tactic of drumming up interest using the rivalry storyline. With a win, NU would retain a bronze hat known as the Land of Lincoln Trophy, created to replace the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk in 2009, for the third consecutive year.

“There are some natural rivalries that you have, and I think athletes know exactly what it means when this week comes around,” Smith said in Champaign. “Northwestern week is here and we can’t wait to play.”

One-hundred fifty miles to the north, Fitzgerald echoed the sentiment.

“This is the only (rivalry) that matters for us,” he said. “To fight for the Land of Lincoln Trophy, it means the world to our program.”

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