‘Cats – Illini: Reviewing the Rivalry

Perhaps I should put the call out again to former players. I always believed that a particularly painful loss somehow stays with a team a full year and the revenge factor comes in to play. It could be the great myth of college football. There is so much time between games and so much turnover between rosters that unless you have an established rivalry, the “payback” games are usually more in the fans’ heads rather than the player’s on-field actions. I could be wrong.

Northwestern and Illinois are technically rivals. We are subject to the #1 paramater of rivalry making in that we share the same state boundaries. The rivalry has been less then memorable over the years as it is an extremely rare case when both teams are ranked. Heck, it is rare that we both have winning records when we play for the piece of hardware formerly known as the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk and now Land of Lincoln Trophy.  However,  earlier this week we outlined how the tag team of  Illini AD Mike Thomas and first year head football coach, Tim Beckman, have really helped to change that. You remember Thomas’ “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” jealousy stake in the ground retaliation of proclaiming the Illini will be the “kings of Chicago” along with Beckman’s fueling of the fire by banning purple AND placing a crossed-out Wildcat logo outside the not so Fighting Illini lockerroom have definitely escalated things.

As with all rivalries, nothing really stokes the fire moreso then on field performance. Advantage Illini. Northwestern is trying to etch its first 10-win season of this century and obviously under Fitz and needs a win on senior day vs our rival to do so.  The ‘Cats are actually favored by an unfathomable 19 points, the single highest conference point spread I can remember – ever. As you’ll be reminded below, there is a reason you don’t see many ‘Cats fans talking too much trash as a)the Illini have won back-to-back games and b)the amount of times the favored team has been upset is actually borderline a regular occurence.

I said before this season, the one team I wanted to beat more than any other this year was Illinois. We’ve lost control of what up to 2010 was controlling this series. Plus, I wasn’t particularly fond of the unsavory way the Illini were doing business under Zook. Then, when Jonathan Brown kneed ‘Cats offensive lineman, Patrick Ward, right in the cajones on TV and didn’t get ejected, it was too much for me.  I want this game. As a fan, there is no such thing as greed and I’m getting greedy. I don’t just want to win this game, I want to make a statement by blowing them out. Fitz, the unofficial Most Likely To Never Run Up A Score, may even be convinced to pour it on if given the chance this one year, this one time. Northwestern’s win last week stemmed the season storyline of not being able to finish. No sane person in America would call out Fitz as no lead has ever been big enough for us.  A chance to really pound the Illini will certainly underline the disparity between the directional arrows for each respective program. It’s a storyline for the media that nearly writes itself. Plus, some statements of finishing strong can only look good for the four separate bowls that are still in play for the Wildcats and their nationally dispersed fanbase.

You almost forget that just last year the Illini were actually ranked (AP 22/coaches 24) entering our game after squeaking out a win over Western Michigan. Dan Persa was finally on the mend and expected to play and RB Mike Trumpy was stepping up in to his own. The Illini were a 7-point favorite.  We all know what happenned next. Dan Persa’s first start turned in to a blowout as he tossed 4 TD passes, three to Ebert and Mike Trumpy ran at will to help the ‘Cats stake an 18-point lead midway through the third. Persa went out with an arm injury and Trumpy blew out his knee and the comeback was on. The ‘Cats then found themselves mounting a comeback off a fumble and punched in the apparent winning score on a Jacob Schmidt TD with about a minute to go. AJ Jenkins toyed with us on the ensuing drive and Illinios marched 69-yards for the win 38-35 to push the Illini to 5-0.  When you consider what has happened since that very moment until now for the two programs, it couldn’t be more drastic in terms of reversal of fortunes. Let’s go in to the vault for some more context:


Northwestern – Illinois Alltime Series Capsule:

Alltime Series: Illinois  leads 54-46-5
In Evanston:
NU tied 26-26-3 (Note: I count the 2010 as neutral field, NU counts it as home game)
In Champaign:
Illinois 26-20-2
Illini 2-0 (both played at Wrigley Field)
Since 1995:
Northwestern leads 10-7
Trends: NU has won 6 of last 9;
Pat Fitzgerald: 3-3 vs Illinois
Tim Beckman: First meeting vs Northwestern

MAGIC MOMENTS 1991 – Lake The Posts

This Francis Peay win was the inspriation for the name of this very blog. The game was hardly memorable for its play other than the extreme weather (could not have been more than 20,000 fans at the game) and our ability to stifle Illini QB Jason Verduzco. ‘Cats win 17-11 and the FG posts end up in Lake Michigan. I remember that walk with the posts so vividly including a car full of Illini fans stuck on Central looking at the scene in sheer horror.

1992 – The Comeback For many of the “old-timers”, this game holds a special place in NU lore. Gary Barnett’s first year in Evanston and LTP went on a road trip to Champaign with limited expectations. For three quarters that low bar was met. NU entered the 4th quarter down 26-6 and Illini fans started to pile out of Memorial Stadium. However, in a precursor to the Cardiac ‘Cats of future years, Lenny Williams put on a clinic. The improbable unfolded as Lee Gissendanner made a fingertip catch with :26 left to cap-off a miracle comeback as NU won their second Big Ten road game of the ’92 season and moved to 2-2 (2-5) and I can remember many of us pointing to this very game as the proof of Barnett might be on to something. We now have video to prove it. Check out X:XX below on this clip for the highlights of The Comeback.

1995 – The Squeaker Many forget about the ‘Cats 14-point 1st half deficit at Illinois. One of the largest purple travel contingents ever to Champaign had to help rally the flat ‘Cats and D-Bates and Darnell came up big in the second half. As you can see in the highlights, a late Autry TD and an Eric Collier game-saving INT helped NU move to 7-1 and 4-0 in Big Ten play. ‘Cats win 17-14

1996 – The (Adrian) Leap  – NU again entered as a favorite against a “down” Illini team as the ‘Cat were seeking their 13th straight Big Ten win and 17th win in two seasons. Darnell Autry was out after departing the Wisconsin game so Adrian “no relation” Autry would step in as the starter. As you can see in this clip, the ‘Cats again found themselves behind late in the game, this time 24-20 with just over a minute to go and facing a 4th and 5 in the red zone. Brian Musso’s clutch (when was he not?) 1st down grab set up one of the more visually memorable rushing TDs of NU lore during this glory run. ‘Cats win 27-24. And, note to Evan Watkins, Adrian Autry was named Big Ten offensive player of the week in his first start.

2000 – The Rout to The Title –  NU closed the deal on their third Big Ten title since 1995 with a 61-23 blowout of the Illini on NU senior day. The Illini’s Kurt Kittner was sidelined with a concussion and a nasty cold day and blustery wind help aid the first two NU TDs. Damien Anderson shattered Darnell’s records on this day as he racked-up 179 yds, 4 TDs and nearly got to 2000 yds on the season. The ‘Cats have not scored this many points since and it was the highest output since 1944.

2003 – Getting It Wright Again – NU entered the finale with a win-or-go-home bowl opp on the line. The Illini were brutal, entering 1-10, yet in the ‘ol “throw out the records” cliche, the Orange were up on NU early once again. Jason Wright carried the ‘Cats with a sick 251 yds, 4 TD game and NU did not pass once in the entire second half. Yes, the only pass was negated because of a penalty and Noah Herron chipped in a “modest” 163 rushing yards in a 37-20 win that would send Baz and the boys to the Motor City Bowl. It was the first bowl appearance since 2000.

2004 – The Backes Game – This one I had completely forgotten about somehow. Ron Turner’s final season at Illinois looked like he’d at least walk away with the Sweet Sioux. The Illini were up 21-14 with just over 2 minutes to go and then Jeff Backes triggered the Cardiac ‘Cats switch and returned an Illini punt return to the house to tie up the game. The Illini had a game-winning FG miss at the end of regulation and Brett Basanez came through in OT for the 28-21 OT win.

2005 – The “Fastball” Game

Brett Basanez was simply brilliant putting up an 80.6% completion percentage and also breaking the 10,000-yard passing mark to join Drew Brees and Chuck Long in Big Ten immortality. Tyrell Sutton put up yet another 200+ yard rushing mark against the woeful Illini who painfully ended Ron Zook’s rookie year in Champaign by dropping to 0-8 in the conference and 2-9 overall. The ‘Cats put up 596 yards of offense. However, the two memorable plays of the day were Barry Cofield’s momentum-changing pick-off deep in our own territory and the true gamechanger – Gerard Hamlett’s “fastball” TD. You might remember this as “that Outback Bowl last play” which ended a few yards short of the endzone by Zeke. In 2005 it was run to perfection on a fake FG play and put us up 31-21 and we never looked back winning 38-21 and it moved us to 7-4 on the year and catapulted us in to the Sun Bowl vs UCLA.

2006 – The Senior Day Shutdown

Fitz’s last game of his first painful season as head coach ended in smiles as NU completely shutdown Illinois with the exception of one 86-yard TD jaunt by Rashard Mendenhall. INCLUDING that run, the ‘Cats gave up only 286 yards on the day and completely shut down Juice Williams (4-18) and Fitz began what has become incredible play on senior day with a 27-16 win to finish 4-8. The Illini dropped to 2-10 and just one year after Zook promised “we’re never going 2-9 again, I can promise you that” the Zooksters ended the season 2-10. Technically, I guess he was right, but man – what a tough time for the Illini.

2008 – The Final Sweet Sioux

One year after a rare loss to the Illini, NU again stepped-up on senior day in a game that set up a similar scenario and EXACT same record as this year.  The ‘Cats entered 8-3 and were jockeying for better bowl position and seeking the first 9-win season since ’96. The Illini were fighting for their bowl life sitting at 5-6 just one year after their Rose Bowl appearance. For some reason, this is up there in one of the all-time most fun, electric atmospheres I remember at Ryan Field. The attendance was very poor (low 30,000s) but the place was hopping as it was a late afternoon-turned-under-the-lights event. That, and the single best promotion to date – purple winter hats that completely tinted the entire stadium purple (I hope they do it for Saturday!). Bacher was solid all day and Hankwitz frustrated the heck out of the Juice Williams to Aurrelious Benn option but Brendan Smith had the play of the game with a 50+ yard punt return that set-up the dagger TD from Bacher to Peterman in the 4th. Northwestern wins 27-10 and sends Illinois home for the holidays.

2009 – The McManis Pick Game

The Inaugural Land of Lincoln Trophy Game saw NU trying to guarantee a bowl berth as they entered at 6-4 playing a 3-6 Illini team. The ‘Cats had a rough day at the office and in 2010 form seemed poised to blow an early lead. Despite two missed FGs, we were up 14-3 and then 21-9 in the 4th. The Illini scored with 4-minutes to go to cut it to 21-16 and got the ball back with just over a minute to go. The Illini were on the move and you had that “uh-oh” feeling when Batman, aka Sherrick McManis, came to the rescue with one of the more controversial INTs in NU memory as he tackled, rolled over the receiver and pulled the ball away all in one motion. ‘Cats win 21-16 and move to 7-4 guaranteeing a back-to-back bowl berth.

Games I’d Like To Remove From The Memory

2011 – Their Comeback –  I already outlined this one in the opening paragraphs of the post. No way I’m doing it a second time. Sweet Home Chicago this, Mr. PA announcer/DJ man.

2010 – Run Out Of Wrigley

Just in case we thought we had the Illini’s number in perpetuity, the Mikel Leshoure led team lay the woodshed on Northwestern in a game that had ESPN’s College Gameday giving it national love. The bowl-like, surreal atmosphere of the game was heightened by the backyard school-like one-way rules that were put in to effect when all hell broke loose around the tight space in right field. The ‘Cats were Dan Persa-less and looked clueless at times as Illini put up 519 rushing yards (yes, just rushing alone!) on NU while Evan Watkins was thrown in to the spotlight in a crazy atmosphere game that seemed to have us overwhelmed. The Illini are definitely on the upswing and you can bet the rare Big Ten opener in Champaign will be one we have marked this season.

Of course, I already blanked the 2002 game out of my mind. Images of Illini players hoisting their helmets on top of the Wildcat statue in the south end zone are too brutal to recreate. I need some help from you folks filling in the blanks.  Also, use the comments section to fill in your favorite moments of the series.  A reminder, if you want to relive the ‘Cats-Illini wins over the past 20 years, go to www.NorthwesternHighlights.com and view away!


    I too was there in ’92. I honestly believe I was the only NU fan in the whole East Uppper deck. I was visiting my best friend who was an Illini student at the time and have to be honest, I did not think we had any shot. BUT, in the fourth quarter, when we scored our first touchdown…I thought of Barnett and all that he said about belief without evidence, turned to my best friend and told him, we are going to win this game. Of course, he thought I was nuts. The ’92 game higlighted how the ‘dark ages’ actually helped us because teams just expected to beat us and could not ‘rise’ to the occasion when the momentum turned our way. Of all the Illini games they I’ve seen on TV or been to in person, the ’92 game will always be the one closest to my heart. This was THE game that I bought into the whole Barnett koolaid purple/pasadena thing. When Lenny connected with Gis with :06 left…I started screaming…”It’s a miracle, it’s a miracle…it’s a freakin’ miracle” The look on the ILLINI fans faces was unbelievable…they were stunned in silence. My friend turned to me (someone who could have easily gotten into NU) and said…”and here I thought I was going to the ‘sports school’. For those who are younger, I do not know if you realize how stark the disparity in men’s football and basketball was at the time. The Illini are currently where we were in BOTH sports as of today. Lenny & the Jets…GO CATS!!


      Also, I believe this may go down as the most underrated game in NU football history…an absolute stunner.

    • I too was at that game. In the end zone where the comeback happened. Kept pacing the top row for our walking route seemed tied to the comeback. I truly believed to expect victory from that day forward. New fans have no clue how big that game was for our program at that time.


        Do you remember how many Illini fans had already left the game? I am thinking atleast half. The reaction they had when they were told they lost was priceless. Loved the video. Reminded me of being at the ’92 ND game at Soldiers Field. We had a good group of NU friends as well as my father. We were trying to explain to him (big ND fan) how foreign the level of fan support ND was in comparison to NU. We hoped someday we could get that kind of support. That was the first thing I thought of when I walked into the Rose Bowl in ’96 and saw that sea of purple. The juxtaposition of the sea of ND fans at Soldiers Field ( a ‘home’ game for us) as compared to the scene at Pasadena was the most surreal sports moment ever. I do not think anything will ever top it.

      • Jimgocats93

        Can you imagine Len Williams in the era of the spread offense? Wow!
        Happy Thanksgiving!
        Thanks for putting this blog together and keeping it going!

  • SJ Wildcat

    Watching the 1992 season highlights, two things really stuck out: 1) Lee Gissendanner was really exciting every time he touched the football and 2) Len Williams was a big, strong quarterback. Thanks NU Highlights.


      Lenny came out of the housing projects in Rockford and was resilient, could scramble well and had the running ability and frame of a fullback

      • Indeed he was the last silver football winner. Darnell lost out to Eddie George. If venric was healthy vs msu and put up 100 he’d have had a helluva case. Gotta believe Braxton wins it.


          Yep. If Mark had another monster day at Mich St., I think he’d be the front runner. Matt McGloin has an outside shot…especially if he is instrumental in beating Wisky. We’ll see.

  • CR

    The 2000 games was my first, and I don’t think I’ve ever been as cold. Still, for a ten year old seeing a game with his dad (with whom I’d listened to all the games on the radio in the games preceding) it was a pretty special day. Even used it as the inspiration for my admissions essay. Definitely worth the wind.

  • fullfathomfive

    A cold day in Chumpbanana in 1986 …John Duvic kicks three field goals in the 4th quarter and NU wins 23-18 for the first win over Illinois since ’77 and (at the time) an amazing four-win season. I could have kissed Duvic. What a game!

  • CSCat

    Love, love, love the 92 highlights…thanks for sharing LTP. Lots of talent on that team…too bad some of those older guys didn’t completely buy into the Barnett approach. Talk about a roller coaster of emotions on a season, as fantastic the Purdue and Illinois victories were, I don’t believe I was ever so distressed as after the Michigan State loss…to this day I know that kick was good and the Cats were robbed that day. I’ll never forget Brian Leahy’s reaction and the post-game reactions. It was like a funeral the next at Nicolet.

  • bear44

    Can you imagine how fun Lenny would be in today’s offenses.

  • purple badger

    My first NU football game- 1971. NU 48, Illinois 0. I thought that was how all the games were going to be