I want this one. I want it badly. Ever since Illinois AD Mike Thomas stepped up to the podium in his very first press conference after taking the helm I’ve been wanting to pound the Illini on the field. Thomas replaced the very likable Ron Guenther in Champaign and proclaimed that the Illini would really take back the state. Over time he even claimed he wanted the Illini to be the “Kings of Chicago” – an obvious retort to Northwestern’s “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” marketing slogan. The Illini unveiled an entire campaign that looked, felt and smelled of reactionary marketing with their “Our State. Our Team.” motto. Thomas then went and hired “his guys” in the main revenue sports including Tim Beckman, the former head coach of Toledo. Beckman came in and in essence HELPED the Northwestern brand by barring purple from the Illini wardrobe and putting a red slash through a Northwestern logo outside of the Illini lockerroom. In essence, these motivational tactics seemed to mirror a program that was aspiring to be Northwestern and not the team that has beaten us in back-to-back years. And that’s the only part that really gets to me.
In 2010, the Wrigley debacle saw Mikel LeShoure run roughshod on us with a Dan Persa-less team that had just seen its season take a tragic turn. This bowl game atmosphere gave the game a huge stage as ESPN College Gameday paid a visit to our “home” game. After owning this series for the past 20 years, the Illini stole the spotlight from what was supposed to be a Northwestern brand building exercise. Then, in 2011, we saw Mike Trumpy injure his knee and the momentum changed with the injury as AJ Jenkins became a one-man wrecking ball and sparked a crazy comeback that involved us taking the lead with a minute to go and still losing. The Illini went so far as to play Sinatra’s “My Kind of Town” in reference to the fact that they think they are Chicago’s Big Ten Team.
Before this season I said this is the one game that I want the most. Beating Iowa is fun and gives us all a lot of laughs at the expense of our “friends” in Hawkeyes Nation who have little hair left these days after pulling it out every season watching Northwestern simply find new ways to win. This year, I wanted to thrash the Illini. Despite multiple decades now of subpar play, they still manage to give us trouble and even win bowl games now and again. The Illini now enter the season finale with a B1G losing streak of 13 games. Boosters are calling for Thomas’ head by locking up their checkbooks. Beckman has become loathed by his B1G colleagues for sending a 8-man triage team to try and pluck Penn State players in the wake of the scandal. Simply put, this program, in just one year post Ron Zook, has put itself on the ropes.
Fitz is well known for being the antithesis of a coach who runs up the score, however, if there was one game, one year to do it, this would be it. A Northwestern trouncing of Illinois to keep them winless in the Big Ten (currently the Illini are 2-9,0-7 as you know) begs the compare and contrast profiles from the Chicago media that Thomas has been aiming to own. It signals to the high school audience the difference in program trajectories between the two, although, it’s rare that we go head to head with many Illini recruits. It’s been three years since we’ve beaten the lone team we have a trophy game with, and the Land of Lincoln trophy has already been parodied by many to be the LOL trophy (as in shorthand text message lingo “Laugh Out Loud”) in reference to the Illini. This game also will be the freshest in the minds of bowl officials and you’ve got to believe we’ll have more credentials then we ever have had for this team considering we could land in one of four different bowls ranging from the Capital One Bowl to the Outback, Gator or even the BW3 bowl in order of prestige. It also sets up the potential for a rare 10-win season, which would really be the make or break on the success bar of this season. You get the point, there is a lot on the line and it extends well beyond bragging rights.
I use the word “rivalry” in quotes in today’s headline simply because this game rarely features a situation where it is a big game for BOTH teams – it is usually one or the other. While fans may not feel the rivalry factor as much as other programs (ie Iowa for us), the series has featured a host of upsets in scenarios just like this one. Both teams have been knocked off their perch in games in which there was seemingly no way they could win. Northwestern enters the game as a 17-point favoite. Whoa. I do believe that is the highest point spread for a conference game since I’ve been following NU (1991). Any of you out there with access to this info that can rank the last time we were this heavy of a favorite, let me know.
I don’t need to caution ‘Cats fans about overlooking this game, as you know what I stated above. Furthermore, the health of our two biggest star players – Venric Mark and Kain Colter – is uncertain as of this moment. Playing Trevor Siemian for four quarters would be quite an adjustment for us and a huge personnel advantage for the Illini as eliminating the option attack is a huge bonus for them. We’ve got a chock full week of content that ranges from a deep dive on the Illini game, its history and context to LTP playing travel guide as we wade through the bowl game scenarios. Buckle up folks, it is time to really dig in and have a week we’ll be thankful for.
Congratulations to Northwestern men’s soccer for advancing to the NCAA quarterfinal round after upsetting 7-seed Marquette 1-0 this weekend. The ‘Cats will face 10-seed Louisville on Sunday. Check out the details here.
Trouble in Gopherville
This looks ugly. Star WR AJ Barker quit the Minnesota football team this weekend. Oh yeah, he also publicly exposed his displeasure on his Tumblr feed detailing his account of how Jerry Kill degraded him. This is going to be a pretty big mess as the Gopher’s AD has formally responded to the matter. To check out the ongoing saga, be sure to check out www.TheDailyGopher.com . You wonder how much the distraction will impact this week’s finale against Michigan State.
Back Meet Pat
Several of you sent me notes congratulating me on my prognostication skills. I called a 24-20 win for NU and was obviously off by a point. Two games ago I nailed it with a 28-17 exact score pick in the win over Iowa. I’m feeling a ton of pressure for Saturday!
The Big 14?
Obviously, one of the biggest stories of the week is the potential expansion of the B1G to include Maryland and possibly Rutgers. I’ve put a poll up to capture your thoughts on this mammoth move and the results are so far what I expected. We’ll be digging in on this as it effect Northwestern in multiple ways – from new competition on the field to the financial impact to the ‘Cats coffers.