- Scott Powers, ESPN Staff Writer
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Illinois hasn’t won a Big Ten game this season, but that hasn’t deterred the Illini from believing they can knock off rival Northwestern come Saturday.
“Our season wasn’t what we expected and somewhat disappointing,” Illinois senior defensive end Michael Buchanan said. “I would definitely say winning this game would kind of leave a better taste in our mouth. It’s our rivalry. One of the things we talked about before the year was being the best team in our state. That’s an opportunity we have this Saturday.”
From an overall standpoint, Northwestern has been the better team this season. The Wildcats are 8-3 overall and 4-3 in conference and are headed to a bowl game. Illinois is 2-9 overall and 0-7 in conference and its season will be over after Saturday.
Despite those truths, both sides say Saturday’s game is up for grabs.
“At the same time, you can throw the records out,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “You can throw everything out when you get into rivalry games. Sixty minutes playing someone you have a ton of respect for. It should be a heck of a football game.”
Illinois coach Tim Beckman also played up the rivalry aspect.
“It’s a very, very important football game,” Beckman said. “It’s a rivalry game. That’s why you usually play them last. I’ve been involved in great ones, the best of the best. They’re very important.”
The Illini rallied from a 28-10 deficit in the second half last season to defeat the Wildcats 38-35 when quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase scored with 13 seconds left in the game in Champaign. Illinois won 48-27 at Wrigley Field two years ago. Illinois leads the all-time series 54-46-5.
“It’s something we could hang our hats on (if we win again,)” Buchanan said. “We take a lot of pride in being the best team in the state. This is a game we have to get and have to win.”
Northwestern hasn’t forgotten last year’s defeat.
“It was definitely a tough loss,” Northwestern sophomore defensive back Ibraheim Campbell said. “It was a game we thought we should have won. It was just a series of bad events. It hurt a lot, especially it being our rivals and being the second year in a row. It was definitely a tough loss, but we’re looking to take care of it this time.”
Fitzgerald was hopeful the Wildcats’ previous losses to Illinois would drive them this year.
“As I look back at the last two games we’ve played against Illinois,” Fitzgerald said. “We have not played very well, and that’s incredibly motivating to everyone in our football program. We’re going to have our best week of preparation.
“I’ve been very impressed watching the last couple games the way Illinois has played. They’ve been very physical and had every opportunity to win the Minnesota game, same thing last week against Purdue, but just ended up a couple plays short. You can see coach Beckman’s stamp is on it. They’re playing tough. They’re playing to find a way to get things turned around. To that, you’re playing a wounded team who is very hungry for a win. That’s going to be a great challenge for us.”