Daily file photo by Alison Albelda
Last year as Pat Fitzgerald, Clayton Thorson and the rest of the Northwestern players lifted the Land of Lincoln Trophy on the grass of Ryan Field, the Wildcats were living their best life. The Big Ten West Division champions had finished the regular season with a victory over a poor Illinois team, marking another recent triumph over their in-state rivals.
When the two teams battle yet again Saturday in Champaign with the trophy on the line, the atmosphere will be vastly different. For the Fighting Illini (6-5, 4-4 Big Ten), a win would be another memorable moment during a bounce-back season, while an NU (2-9, 0-8 Big Ten) victory would be one of the only saving graces from a forgettable campaign.
“Fun week in college football,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It’s not only about you, it’s about your fan base.”
Illinois is in the midst of its best season since the end of the Ron Zook era in 2011. Expected to finish last in the Big Ten West, the Fighting Illini are in the middle of the pack with four conference wins — the same number they had won in the previous three seasons combined.
Illinois’ season-defining win came last month when James McCourt nailed a game-winning field goal as time expired to defeat then-undefeated Wisconsin in one of the biggest upsets of the 2019 season. The victory has been a turning point for the Fighting Illini. Not only did it quell calls for coach Lovie Smith to be fired, but also sparked a four-game winning streak that propelled Illinois to bowl eligibility.
Quarterbacked by Michigan-transfer Brandon Peters, the Fighting Illini succeeded under pressure during their four-game winning streak. The offense averaged just over 30 points per game during the stretch and produced two game-winning drives.
On defense, senior linebacker Dele Harding has been sensational in his first season as a starter. The Elkton, Maryland native is second in the country in total tackles with 132, which includes 12 tackles for loss. Harding also has three interceptions and three forced fumbles.
“I know this rivalry’s built on great respect and we’re fired up to compete against the Illini,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re having a great year. Coach Smith is a great friend. He’s done a great job getting them bowl eligible. They’ve had some amazing comebacks.”
Last season, NU rested many of its starters in the second half of the game in order to keep its banged up players healthy for the Big Ten Championship Game the following week. While Saturday will be this year’s team’s final contest, Fitzgerald will still be managing a lot of injuries.
In addition to a bevy of players ruled out for the year over the previous few weeks, sophomore quarterback Hunter Johnson was ruled out for this week’s game and Aidan Smith’s status is up in the air. If Smith is also out, sophomore Andrew Marty would earn the first start of his career.
Fitzgerald also implied true freshman running back Evan Hull will not play against Illinois in order to retain his redshirt.
“It doesn’t matter what your record is when you play a rival,” Lovie Smith said. “Any team coached by Pat Fizgerald, you know how they’re going to play – 60 minutes, clean football all the way.”
An NU victory would give the Cats a five-game winning streak against its southern rivals, which would be the longest winning streak for NU against Illinois in program history. The Cats have won four straight against Illinois four other times — 1929-32, 1938-41, 1947-50 and 2003-06. In two of those seasons when NU went for its fifth consecutive victory over Illinois, it lost 3-0.
Junior wide receiver Riley Lees, a Libertyville, Illinois native, said he knows a lot of players on the Fighting Illini and that makes the game more fun. He added that playing for a trophy adds an extra dimension to the game.
“It’s rivalry week,” Lees said, “so anything goes.”
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