EVANSTON – In line for a quality bowl, Northwestern has its ticket out and ready to be punched.
That would appear to be little more than a formality for the Wildcats with a home game against Illinois on Saturday, except they know better. They know all about their recent history against the Illini, and it’s not good.
That explains why they’re just a little apprehensive about today’s game, no matter how poor the Illini are playing.
“There is no question this is a huge rivalry,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
And there’s no debate, either, that his team has come up short against Illinois the past two years.
Now, Northwestern (8-3, 4-3 Big Ten) appears to be in a good spot after beating Michigan State 23-20 and shaking off a brutal overtime loss at Michigan. That’s something the Illini (2-9, 0-7) can’t say. The free fall that began after a 6-0 start under Ron Zook last season still is going strong under new coach Tim Beckman with eight straight losses overall and 13 in a row in conference play.
The way they’ve struggled, it’s hard to believe Illinois was a Top 25 team fighting for bragging rights in Chicago when these teams met a year ago. Yet, the memory lingers.
Northwestern hasn’t forgotten.
The Wildcats wanted to avenge a 21-point beating at Wrigley Field in 2010. Instead, they left Champaign with a 38-35 loss after the Illini wiped out an 18-point deficit and rallied again to win when Nathan Scheelhaase squirmed into the end zone from a half yard with 13 seconds left, capping a wild week and setting off quite a scene after the game.
There was Scheelhaase standing near midfield, holding the Land of Lincoln trophy – a replica of Abe Lincoln’s hat – as “Sweet Home Chicago” blared over the PA system. It was a clear response to Northwestern claiming to be Chicago’s Big Ten team, and it came after a week of wrangling between the schools over that issue.
“It was definitely a tough loss,” Northwestern safety Ibraheim Campbell said. “It was a game that we thought we should have won. It was just a series of bad events. It hurt a lot.”
At that moment, the Illini were flying high.
They were 5-0 and ranked 24th, poised to move up five spots in the poll. A week later, they beat Indiana and jumped to No. 16 before everything crashed.
They dropped six in a row, costing Zook his job, before scratching out a six-point win over UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, and things have been no better this year.
“At this point it doesn’t matter what we’ve done as far as not playing the way we’ve wanted to,” Scheelhaase said. “And for them, it doesn’t matter the successes they’ve had. It comes down to you’ve got to win this one game because it means a lot for pride, for I’m sure recruiting, just to be able to put your stamp on how you walked out of the season.”
The Illini rank last in the Big Ten in scoring offense and second-to-last in scoring defense, and this nightmare of a season can’t end soon enough for a fan base wondering if Beckman is the right man for the job.
“I just know what I see on tape, and I see a very talented football team,” Fitzgerald said.
He touted center Graham Pocic and left tackle Hugh Thornton as NFL prospects along with defensive end Michael Buchanan and defensive tackles Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster. He praised Scheelhaase as well as running backs Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson.
Yet he also realizes the teams are in different places at the moment, particularly Illinois. The Illini came up short again last week, falling by three to Purdue.
“We moved right to the football team upstate,” said Beckman, who has made a point of not saying “Northwestern” since he was hired. “They’re a very, very good football team, a very, very good program. Coach Fitz has done a great job up there.”
While the Illini continue to struggle, Northwestern is in a good spot despite some gut-wrenching losses.
The Wildcats blew a double-digit lead at Penn State, couldn’t protect a 12-point edge in the fourth quarter against Nebraska and lost in OT at Michigan after a leaping Roy Roundtree tipped and caught a 53-yard pass near the end of regulation to set up the tying field goal for the Wolverines.
Last week, the defense came through down the stretch and forced four turnovers in the game.
Now, Fitzgerald could tie Lynn Waldorf’s school record with 49 wins, and the Wildcats could be in for a big payoff if they get past Illinois. The only Big Ten teams with more wins are Ohio State and Nebraska, and the Buckeyes are ineligible for postseason play.
“It’s pretty simple,” Fitzgerald said. “We win, we open up the opportunity for some neat stuff. Bottom line is we’ve got to go 1-0 this week and all the other things will take care of itself.”