Illini take territorial bragging rights in win over Northwestern

Illini athletic director Mike Thomas set a goal to become “king of Chicago” when he was hired two months ago.

After Saturday’s 38-35 victory over a Northwestern team that brands itself as “Chicago’s Big Ten team,” the Blues Brother’s rendition of “Sweet Home Chicago” blared through the speakers of Memorial Stadium. As Northwestern players walked off the field, disappointed for allowing Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to run into the end zone with 13 seconds remaining for the game-winning touchdown, the scoreboard at their backs flashed “State of Illinois’ Undefeated Team.”

“I feel like we’re the better team, and we are Chicago’s Big Ten team,” said junior Michael Buchanan, a native of in Homewood, Ill., less than an hour south of Chicago.

In the week leading up to the game, Illini head coach Ron Zook said he expected some of his players from close to Chicago to take offense to the Wildcats’ marketing slogan. At Friday’s homecoming pep rally, in front of alumni gathered on the quad, senior offensive lineman Jack Cornell joked that the Illini were “Champaign’s Big Ten team.”

“It’s the Chicago guys that get upset about that,” Zook said. “They are in Chicago, we’re not in Chicago. They are the school in Chicago, but we are the University of Illinois. Chicago is in Illinois, so I guess that still makes us the University of Illinois. And I don’t mean that in any disrespectful way.”

Last season, when the Illini traveled to Chicago to play Northwestern in the Wrigleyville Classic, they arrived at the Chicago landmark and found it painted purple. Northwestern has made a strong marketing push in the second city, including the purchase of several billboards that say “Persa Strong.” Illini backup quarterback Miles Osei drove by the billboards all summer.

Neither Zook nor Scheelhaase noticed the Chicago anthem playing in background to the cheers as Illinois left the field on Saturday. The Illini retained the “Land of Lincoln” trophy, which goes to the winner of the rivalry game each year.

“Did they play that? That’s pretty cool,” Scheelhaase said after the game. “It came up, I’ll be honest with you. Especially after last year and what went on with that game, and it being in Chicago.

I’ve been to Chicago a few times and I’ve never seen the billboards but I’ve heard about them … With them saying they are Chicago’s team and everything, we definitely walked in with a chip on our shoulder. We feel like we’re a pretty established team in this state.”