Tepid Illinois-Northwestern rivalry heating up
Illinois and Northwestern play for a trophy with no history, a two-year-old replica of Abe Lincoln's hat. The trickle of venom that flows between the two programs would make SEC fans snicker.
Illinois tight end Evan Wilson, a Woodstock, Ga. native, said he had to ask around to get a feel for how serious the 119-year-old rivalry with Northwestern really is. He said there is more feistiness back home between his high school and rival Etowah High.
''Never liked them,'' Wilson said. ''Never did.''
But things are heating up a bit as Northwestern (2-1) and the 24th-ranked Illini (4-0) get ready open the Big Ten season Saturday and battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy.
Last year, Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson said his team's 48-27 win over Northwestern at Wrigley Field made them Chicago's Big Ten team, a reference to Northwestern's marketing claim that it owns the Windy City.
The 'Cats weren't happy about that - still aren't - and they were upset after Mikel Leshoure rolled up 330 yards rushing that day, too.
For their part, some Illini this week re-aired an old complaint with sketchy roots that the private-school Wildcats and their coaches look down on their state-school counterparts, bragging that Northwestern looks for a different type of player than Illinois.
''It makes me mad. It should make our kids mad,'' Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino told reporters. ''I don't know what they meant, but I'd say we've got a bunch of great kids. By them saying that, they obviously think we don't have good kids.''
''It's good,'' he added. ''We'll go find out again.''
Quarterback Dan Persa, who injured his right Achilles tendon the week before last year's game, is expected to play Saturday for the first time since.
''How much and all those things are to be determined in how the week goes,'' Wildcat coach Pat Fitzgerald said. ''He's had a good five-week period, he's just continuing to get stronger and stronger, and that's why I've listed him as day-to-day.
''He's not only mentally ready, he's chomping at the bit to play,'' Fitzgerald added.
Persa is expected to share time with backup Kain Colter, but Illini coach Ron Zook won't count on Persa being limited as a runner or particularly rusty. Persa suffered the same injury as Illini safety Supo Sanni had in August 2010, Zook noted, and Sani's now a starter.
''I think we've got to assume (Persa will run),'' Zook said. ''Here's a guy that's like another running back.''
That could energize a Wildcat running game already averaging 220 yards a game, and test an Illini defense that has so far been good. Illinois has 13 sacks and has given up just 56.5 rushing yards a game, both best in the Big Ten, and has forced nine turnovers in two games.
After facing four teams that passed more than they ran, Illini linebacker Ian Thomas says he's ready for a challenge that's ''our type of game.''
And he's glad Persa will be there.
''I was kind of hoping he would, seeing as he was out last year,'' Thomas said. ''Just makes it a more interesting game.''
A bigger question is whether Northwestern can stop Illinois' ground game.
Leshoure's 330 yards last November was a school record and cast the national spotlight on him like never before. He left a year early for the NFL.
''They ran a couple of variations in formation last year and we just did a bad job at coaching our guys,'' Fitzgerald said. ''We said that after the game.''
There's no Leshoure this year, just a trio of backs - Justin Ford, Troy Pollard and Donovonn Young - who combine with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase for 241.8 yards a game.
Scheelhaase has been limited by a minor shoulder injury that Petrino said persuaded him to stay away from the quarterback's favored option for two quarters last week against Western Michigan. But when the Illini turned to the option after halftime, they piled up yards and drained the clock.
''(If) you watched the game on Saturday, Western did a nice job, and then they went to the option game,'' Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald tried to tamp down talk this week about any nasty feelings between the schools, but only after making a crack of his own about the slogan.
''If I'm not mistaken, it's trademarked for Northwestern,'' he joked, suggesting Wilson might be guilty of trademark infringement.
After he heard from enough of his teammates about it, even out-of-stater Evan Wilson sounded like he could get used to a little more serious edge to this Illini-Wildcat rivalry.
''I don't care for them too much,'' he said, ''but I love playing them.''