Seniors hungry for a win; last chance against Wildcats

By Derek Barichello

Thirteen seniors will take the field for the last time at Memorial Stadium on Saturday at 11 a.m. when the Illini face Northwestern. They hope to make their last memory a good one.

For defensive tackle Ryan Matha, he cannot believe his college career is coming to an end.

“When you’re younger, you feel like you have all the time left,” he said. “Then before you know it, it’s here. I wasn’t sure how I was going to react, but it’s been harder than I expected.”

When the seniors were recruited by former head coach Ron Turner, the Illini were coming off a Sugar Bowl bid and the program was on top of the Big Ten.

But they have not come close to experiencing any of that. They have suffered setback after setback, with the latest being a new coach and a 2-8 record, making them the second senior class since the Class of ’77 to not reach a bowl game.

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“We’re all competitors out there, sometimes maybe the fans think that we’re going out there just because we have nothing better to do, but we have an awful lot invested in the program. We don’t want to go out there and lose and embarrass ourselves,” Matha said. “We definitely want to win, it’s been tough, and since it’s my senior year it’s been more tough.”

The only thing standing in the way of the seniors getting that win is a good football team.

Northwestern is a formidable opponent. They sport one of the nation’s top offenses, ranked ninth nationally, and head coach Ron Zook said the Illini do not want to get in a scoring contest with them, especially with the offense sputtering.

The Illini have not scored a touchdown since the fourth quarter of the Wisconsin game. That was three weeks ago.

Zook said with a struggling offense, he is going to keep the offensive game plan simple.

“We can’t get outside the realm of what we do,” Zook said. “They are going to get points and yards, but we have to keep playing. We can’t get too caught up in that stuff.”

On the other side of the ball, Zook has been happy with the defense’s improvement and senior safety Kyle Kleckner said he is accepting the Wildcats’ spread offense as a challenge.

“It really puts it on us,” Kleckner said of the secondary. “They will test us on the perimeter. We’re all looking forward to it.”

Lacking a true rival, Matha said Northwestern is the closest thing to a rivalry for the Illini. The two teams will compete for the Tomahawk trophy.

The Illini are hoping to regain possession of the trophy after a two-year hiatus. Last season, the Wildcats retained it with a 28-21 overtime victory in Evanston.

“If anything it’s this,” Matha said. “We’re both in-state and we always play tough games.”

Adding to the rivalry is the envy the Illini have for Northwestern’s program. With Illinois’ status as the public school with 38,000 students attending, they are expected to be the top dogs in the state when it comes to football. Instead, Northwestern, a private school with an enrollment of just 7,800, has experienced much more success.

“We look at their success and wonder why can’t we be that team slated for a bowl year after year,” Kleckner said.

And although a win would only give the Illini a 3-8 record to finish the season, it could give the team momentum heading into next year and allow the seniors one last sing-a-long in the locker room.

“We want to go out the right way,” Matha said. “It wouldn’t erase everything that has happened, but it would be the last time walking out of Memorial Stadium and going out of there as a winner and singing the song as a team one more time.”