Illinois football wraps up regular season with battle with Northwestern for Land of Lincoln Trophy

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Cameron Krasucki

Illinois attempts to defend Northwestern during last year’s game at Ryan Field on Nov. 27, 2021. The Illini hope to make a comeback this year as they are competing against Northwestern this Saturday at Memorial Stadium at 2:30 p.m. for the Land of Lincoln trophy.

By Wes Holllenberg, Staff Writer

Illinois football will wrap up its regular season hosting Northwestern at Memorial Stadium for the annual rivalry game at 2:30 p.m. this Saturday. Head coach Bret Bielema, who tested positive for COVID-19 last week and could not attend the Iowa game, is expected to be back on the sideline as the season comes to a close. 

The Illini lost 28-10 to Northwestern last season, but the Wildcats have had a much harder go this year and sit at 3-8 on the season. Currently, they are riding a five-game losing streak, but Northwestern has won against Illinois for six years straight. 

“This week is a trophy game,” Bielema said. “A trophy that we haven’t seen in six plus years. A trophy that hasn’t been in our building, that our guys haven’t touched. And that’s a big deal as one of their goals at the beginning of the year was to get all the trophies. Obviously, we fell short of Purdue’s. I think this week is more about Northwestern, the rivalry that’s born there and also out of respect for the trophy itself.”

As is the case with any team on a major losing streak, Northwestern enters the game with a lot of question marks. One big unknown is the quarterback situation. Last week, the team split series between Ryan Hilinski and Andrew Marty, signaling head coach Pat Fitzgerald isn’t afraid to get creative and leave everything on the table.

Illinois has experienced similar offensive woes through this season, culminating in an uneven offensive output last week against Iowa in which the Illini failed to establish the run game. Fortunately for Illinois, Northwestern ranks dead last in the Big Ten against the run, allowing 212.6 ground yards per game. 

“They’re just a group of guys that play really well together,” said Illinois offensive coordinator Tony Petersen of the Northwestern defense. “They understand their weaknesses, and they play off of that. They understand their strengths, and they play to that. They play very hard as a group, and any time that you’re paying a defense out there that gives everything every play, that’s a tough challenge. We’re going to have to show up and be able to run and pass the football, and be able to execute it at a high level and make sure we take care of the football and don’t turn it over.”

One key factor for Bielema has been to reignite what he felt was a dissipating level of respect for the rivalry with the Wildcats. According to Bielema, some players made comments last year that were dismissive of the matchup. Bielema felt that the Illini had work to do to even be competitive in the Northwestern rivalry after having lost the past six games. 

“To get to a rivalry standpoint, we have to establish ourselves and earn the respect of the people involved, so that was kind of my narrative,” Bielema said. “The kids have been really really good. I think they understand it. Again, they haven’t touched this trophy in six years, so the opportunity to play for a trophy game against a team that’s got, I would say, a great history in this conference as of late — last year being the Big Ten West representative — that’s a great challenge for us.”

This weekend also happens to be Senior Day, something especially important to the Illini given that their roster has one of the highest number of seniors in the country. Petersen has made it clear Illinois is putting a special effort toward winning this game with so many players competing their final game as Illini. 

“We’re going to do anything we can to win this football game,” Petersen said. “This game means everything to us. We want to make sure that our seniors go out on the right note here. We’re playing an in-state rival. It’s a Big Ten West (opponent). It’s everything right now, so we’re going to call any play we gotta call. Whatever we gotta do to put the ball down the field and score more points. Score early and often, so everything’s on the table at this point.”

@WesHollenberg

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