EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — No. 20 Northwestern wants to keep the Land of Lincoln Trophy, so it’s taking nothing for granted heading into its annual showdown with Illinois.
Northwestern has won the last three meetings by a combined score of 108-42, and the Big Ten programs appear to be on decidedly different levels this season. But that trend doesn’t mean very much to Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald at the moment.
“We’re been on the tough end of this rivalry, too, at times,” Fitzgerald said. “So, I know the demeanor and feeling that they’ll have coming up here.
“This is a big rivalry game for both of us.”
The Wildcats (7-4, 7-1, No. 19 in CFP) have clinched the conference’s West Division title and will play Michigan or Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 1. Then they will play in a bowl game for the fourth consecutive postseason.
For Illinois (4-7, 2-6), Saturday’s matchup at Ryan Field is the finale of another tough year.
“I think it’s pretty neat that your rival is the last game, especially in our situation,” Illini coach Lovie Smith said. “Our guys realize who we’re playing and what we’re playing for. The Land of Lincoln Trophy has been up there too many years.
“Their team has had an outstanding year, but that puts us in a good position, after disappointment, where you can finish the season up the right way by beating your rival.”
Illinois is looking for a positive finish after last weekend’s 63-0 loss at Iowa, which tied for the largest shutout in program history. The Illini also will be trying to win a third Big Ten game for the first time since 2014.
Northwestern will honor its seniors before the 2018 class tries to become just the eighth in school history to go 4-0 against Illinois.
“It would mean a lot,” said senior offensive lineman J.B. Butler, who is from Plainfield. “Being an in-state player, Illinois recruits a lot of guys from my area, so I know a lot of those guys.”
Illinois leads the series 55-51-5, with Northwestern holding a 28-27-3 mark at home.
Here are some other key angles to follow with the game:
With a 51st straight start on Saturday, Northwestern senior Clayton Thorson will break the Big Ten record for career starts by a quarterback. He surpassed 10,000 yards passing last week at Minnesota and ranks sixth in Big Ten history. He needs 349 yards to pass Iowa’s Chuck Long (1981-85) for fifth place.
“I think it’s a testament to a lot of the guys that have caught balls from me,” Thorson said. “I’ve had a lot of great players around me and the offensive line has kept me healthy for 50 games.”
HALL TO MISS FIRST HALF
Senior linebacker Nate Hall will sit out the first half for Northwestern because of a targeting penalty in the second half of the Minnesota game. Fitzgerald disputed the call because he believes the Minnesota player lowered his head after catching a pass and caused the helmet-to-helmet contact.
Fitzgerald also believes the current targeting rule doesn’t give officials enough leeway to make judgement calls.
“Taking playing time away from any player is significant, and Nate Hall can’t go out and start on senior day because of an antiquated rule,” he said.
Illini defensive end Bobby Roundtree leads the Big Ten in sacks with 7 1/2. The sophomore has two in each of his last two games.
“Bobby Roundtree will eventually be a captain for this team,” Smith said.
TEXAS TWO STEP
Sophomore safety Travis Whillock and sophomore linebacker Paddy Fisher, both from Katy, Texas, combined for 26 tackles against Minnesota. It was the first time they had reached double-digit tackles in the same game.
Whillock had a career-high 15, including 11 solo. His 34 tackles over the last three games are the most in the Big Ten during that span. Fisher had 11 tackles, including his first career sack.
STATE OF ILLINOIS
Smith was asked to assess the state of the program as his third season winds down.
“Talking about where we are right now, we’re coming off a disappointing loss,” he said. “You look at the season, we have four wins this year, so that’s reality right now. The state of the program is disappointing right now, but we see brighter days ahead.”
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