Illinois faces rival Northwestern in season finale

It’s been a long time since Illinois football was in this position. The Illini are coming off a win in Big Ten play and have a chance to make it back-to-back Big Ten wins for the first time in two years.

This week’s opponent: the rivals from up north, Northwestern.

Last they met, it was a 50-14 beat down in Evanston, Ill., to end an 0-8 Big Ten season and a 2-10 season overall for Illinois. This time both teams come in limping.

Northwestern (4-7, 0-7 Big Ten) has yet to win a Big Ten game and has lost seven straight since opening the season 4-0. Illinois (4-7, 1-6) won three of its first four and struggled its way through conference play.

Neither team can play in a bowl, neither team has anything to play for anymore except the Land of Lincoln Trophy.

The Wildcats entered the 2013 season with high expectations, possibly even eyeing a spot in the Big Ten Championship game. But a pair of overtime losses and a Nebraska last-second Hail Mary has turned a disappointing season into a just plain bad season.

“It’s been a tough year for them,” Illinois head coach Tim Beckman said. “Maybe a couple here and there they’d like to have back. But they continue to fight and there’s not question about what you’re going to get when you come in here Saturday.”

The offensive side of the ball is where Northwestern has struggled the most. Four times in Big Ten play the Wildcats have failed to score more than one touchdown in a game. 

Northwestern feature two quarterbacks who will take significant snaps. Junior Trevor Siemian does most of the passing, while senior Kain Colter is often using his legs to make things happen.

Colter has struggled to stay injury-free much of the year. He left Northwestern’s senior day game against Michigan State last weekend in the first quarter with an undisclosed upper-body injury. He is listed as day-to-day.

And speaking of senior day, this Saturday will be the final home game for the seniors in orange and blue. For four-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, it will be the last time he and his senior teammates walk out onto the field at Memorial Stadium.

Scheelhaase, maybe more than anyone, has meant a lot to this Illinois program the past four seasons.

“Everybody in this community and everybody around the University of Illinois knows who Nathan Scheelhaase is — not just how he plays the game of football, but how much the University of Illinois means to Nate,” Beckman said. “I’ve been around football my whole life. There’s not many Nathan Scheelhaase’s out there.”

Also playing their last college football game will be linebacker Jonathan Brown, wide receivers Steve Hull and Miles Osei and sixth-year offensive lineman Corey Lewis. Receiver Ryan Lankford will also be in Memorial Stadium as a player for the last time. He suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against Michigan State on Oct. 26.

“This football team knows how important it is that these seniors leave memorial stadium playing as hard as they can and giving them a chance to win a football game,” Beckman said. “Going in to winter workouts with a W is always important.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.