Football: Northwestern senior class looks to go undefeated against rival Illinois


Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Paddy Fisher (left) and Nate Hall celebrate a fumble recovery against Illinois last year. The Wildcats will look for more big plays against the Fighting Illini in Saturday’s rivalry.

Jonah Dylan, Managing Editor


Northwestern’s seniors have a rare opportunity.

On Saturday’s Senior Day, the class will have a chance to go 4-0 against rival Illinois, which has struggled under coach Lovie Smith since he took over in 2016.

The Fighting Illini — who hold a 55-51-5 edge in the all-time rivalry between the two schools — are coming off a particularly devastating 63-0 loss to Iowa, who fell to NU a week prior. Illinois (4-7, 2-6 Big Ten) hadn’t lost a game by a wider margin since at least 1905.

Still, senior quarterback Clayton Thorson said the rivalry transcends any records.

“We kind of throw out all the records when we play them,” he said. “They don’t really care what’s happened in the past, they want to come out and win, so we’re focused on that. But the object is to go 1-0 this week, and that means 4-0 against Illinois, so we’ll take it how it is.”

Besides the Land of Lincoln trophy, the Wildcats (7-4, 7-1 Big Ten) don’t have all that much to play for. They clinched a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game at Iowa on Nov. 10, and will play either Michigan or Ohio State, who will duel it out in “The Game” earlier on Saturday.

On the other side, the Fighting Illini would like nothing more than to spoil NU’s Senior Day and bring the hat back to Champaign for the first time since 2014. With seven losses, they have no shot at bowl eligibility. Yet coach Pat Fitzgerald echoed Thorson’s comments about “throwing out the records” in a rivalry game.

“This is a big rivalry game for both of us, and this is the game that I talk about the most when we get together as a team, when we talk about looking big picture, and it’s a big deal,” he said. “Playing for the Land of Lincoln trophy is critically important for us. We’ve been fortunate now, three in a row, and hopefully we’ll find a way to get it done on Saturday.”

The game will also present an opportunity for Thorson to get the NU passing attack back on track. The senior gunslinger threw for 230 yards in Minneapolis, but had struggled throughout the middle of the season. His last 200-yard game before Saturday had come Oct. 13, when he threw for a career-high 455 yards in an overtime win over Nebraska.

Last season, the Cats travelled to Champaign looking to extend a six-game win streak by beating a struggling Fighting Illini squad. They did just that, heading home with a dominating 42-7 victory, and then-senior running back Justin Jackson had lots to say about the Illinois team.

“I’m glad we can go out beating them like that,” he said after the game. “They’re a team that (is) going to try and talk trash, whatever, even if they’re down by 40. … We go out there and do our job, win big and get out of here.”

Asked about the Fighting Illini’s trash talk this week, Thorson took a more tempered tone.

“I don’t know about this year, we haven’t played them yet,” he said. “So we’ll see.”

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