CHAMPAGNE — When Bret Bielema When he first arrived in Illinois, he thought the Illinois players had talked a little too much about the Northwest rivalry.
A week and a half before Bielema was hired, then a linebacker from Illinois Milo Eifler made some eyebrow-raising comments about the Wildcats.
“I hate the color purple, Northwestern is a terrible school,” Eifler said before the Illini 2020 game at Northwestern. “Evanston, I don’t even know where that is. We need to get there with a focused mindset and take care of the business. There’s always a chip on the shoulder when it comes to rivalry. It’s good that they’re in the state. We get to beat up our little brother.”
The problem was that Illinois had lost five straight to Northwestern by that point — and then lost a largely uncompetitive 28-10 game at Evanston for a sixth straight loss. Illinois head coach Lovie Smithwho was 0-5 against the Wildcats was fired the next day.
Bielema who had a great relationship with the NU coach Pat Fitzgerald Ever since they both first became head coaches with the Big Ten in 2006, Illinois has wanted the field to be more about substance than talk.
“When I got here, there were some things that were said from our side, from the Illinois side, that to me were a little bit out of bounds for someone who’d lost to them six straight games,” Bielema said. “Really talked about respect. I showed that when I came here, Wisconsin and the Northwest had won the last five (Big Ten West titles).”
Illinois responded well to Bielema’s new tactics last season, dominating Northwestern 47-14 in last year’s season finale to win the Land of Lincoln Trophy for the first time since 2014.
Now the script of the two programs seems to be swapped. Illinois (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten) has lost three straight games (all by a single possession) when it kicked off at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, but winning a bowl game still has a small one Chance to win the Big Ten West and is a 14-point straight favorite at Ryan Field.
“He’s done a great job since he’s been in Illinois,” Fitzgerald said. “They play at a very high level in all three phases and have guys who win multiple awards, not only in the Big Ten but also nationally. It’s very well deserved. It’s going to be a hard-fought battle. It’s always a tough battle when you play Rivalry Week. They have the Land of Lincoln Trophy and we have to play clean to compete and we have to play our best game to have a chance of winning the game.
Meanwhile, Northwestern (1-10, 1-7 Big Ten) has lost 10 straight games since their season-opening win over Nebraska in Ireland, including losses to Miami, Ohio, and Southern Illinois. While the Wildcats won the Big Ten West title in the 2020 season shortened by the pandemic, Northwestern has won one or fewer Big Ten games (and three or fewer games overall) in three of the past four seasons.
Like the Illini for many years in this rivalry matchup, the Wildcats proudly play into Saturday’s matchup.
“The way we played [at Illinois last season] Motivation enough,” Fitzgerald said. “We didn’t play very well at any stage of the game last year and they played at a very high level. It doesn’t take long to watch the tape and see that we have to do better to win. I’ve been on the winning side of this game for quite a while, so I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to win it. My hope is that I can get the boys to play clean and consistent together one last time.”
Despite struggles from Northwestern and the Illini to hold the Land of Lincoln Trophy ahead of Saturday’s matchup, Bielema still preaches his players have a healthy respect for a Northwestern program it earned under Fitzgerald. Also, Northwestern gave Ohio State a scare in a 21-7 loss at Evanston three weeks ago, and the Wildcats also faced Purdue in a 17-9 loss at West Lafayette last week.
“That’s my challenge for them this week. Northwestern is a 1-10 football team that played really well,” Bielema said. “I think if you ask Ohio State and Purdue, two of their last three opponents, how good they are, they have an answer for you that they come to play every day, they’re extremely tough, they’re physically they’re good trained. They were in the championship game two years ago. It’s not like they forgot how to win games there.”