Land of Stinkin’: Illinois hasn’t held up its end of the bargain in rivalry with Northwestern

Lovie Smith is 0-4 against the Wildcats, who have won five straight overall in the series. The teams meet again Saturday at Ryan Field.

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Northwestern’s Andrew Marty scores one of his two rushing touchdowns in last season’s win at Illinois.

Northwestern’s Andrew Marty scores one of his two rushing touchdowns in last season’s win at Illinois.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Heading into last season’s finale at Illinois, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald made no apologies or excuses for his 2-9 team. The Wildcats had been through a rough few months, but, hey, it just kind of was what it was. Fitzgerald already had his eyes fixed down the road.

“I have 100% confidence we’ll be right back competing for Big Ten West championships,” he said. “Without a doubt in my mind.”

And then there was this golden nugget:

“We’ll see you at the Big Ten championship next year. How does that sound?”

To begin that successful journey, the Wildcats first had to get through bowl-bound Illinois, which seemed to be turning the corner under Lovie Smith. A bone-rattling 65 rushes for 378 yards later, the Wildcats had a 29-10 win and something to build on. The Illini, who’d mustered a pathetic 26 yards on 14 carries themselves, had a fifth straight loss in the rivalry series.

From the Memorial Stadium press box, it was like watching as the Band-Aids flimsily holding together the Illini’s progress were — one merciless running play at a time — ripped off. How bad was it? Consider that the Wildcats’ quarterback that day was Andrew Marty, who’d entered the season fourth on the depth chart. He carried the ball a still-hard-to-believe 30 times and ran it in twice for touchdowns.

An almost unfathomably strange sports year later, two of the things that make sense are that the Wildcats (5-1) are robust again and the Illini (2-4) are reeling.

“We see things in our program that we’re doing that will eventually get us over the hump,” Illini coach Lovie Smith said in a Zoom call with reporters this week. “We’re gaining.”

Convincing? Sadly, no. It’s Year 5 for Smith, who is 17-38 and just not getting it done. Athletic director Josh Whitman has a major decision to make, if he hasn’t made it already.

But first: Illinois (-14) at No. 15 Northwestern (11 a.m., ESPN2, 720-AM, 890-AM), an odd matchup given the Wildcats already know they’re headed to Indianapolis for next weekend’s league title game against Ohio State. While the Buckeyes enjoy an extra week to prepare for that game, the Wildcats have to deal with their state rival. There isn’t a great deal to be gained by winning, but it would be a really bad look to lose.

And the Illini?

“There’s nothing like rivalry week,” Smith said. “No matter what level of football you play, there’s a team that you want to beat a little bit more than everybody else. That’s definitely the case this week.”

Illinois could — and should — try to flip the script, in a sense, by giving backup quarterback Isaiah Williams a bunch of snaps as a runner. The redshirt freshman rushed for 192 yards this season at Rutgers, a record for an Illini QB. Having him to play off usual starter Brandon Peters is a bonus.

Defensively, the Wildcats, led by the linebacker trio of Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin, are licking their chops at the chance to stifle another opponent’s running game. They and their teammates might be more sky-high when the time comes to square off against the Buckeyes, but they’ll happily stick it to the Illini if they can.

“The Land of Lincoln Trophy has been up north for too long,” Smith said.

It’s got to be growing roots by now. Team Purple, 24-14.

OTHER WEEK 15 PICKS

Northern Illinois (+6) at Eastern Michigan (11 a.m., ESPN3): These teams have a single win between them, but it was an impressive one — the Eagles hung 52 points and 533 yards on MAC West leader Western Michigan just last week. EMU by 13 and a season doughnut for NIU in the win column.

Navy (+7) at Army (2 p.m., Ch. 2, 560-AM): Traditionally a neutral-site affair, this one’s at West Point for the first time since 1943. The Middies thumped the Cadets by 24 last year, but the Cadets are the better team now and Michie (sounds like “Mikey”) Stadium is an inspiring place. Go Army, 27-13.

No. 20 North Carolina (+3) at No. 9 Miami (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7): College football is so rich in star quarterbacks this season, it’s possible UNC’s Sam Howell and Miami’s D’Eriq King have flown under your radar. Change that. This is too much fun to miss. Tar Heels, 48-45.

No. 25 Wisconsin (-2) at No. 19 Iowa (2:30 p.m., FS1): Other than having no running game and no passing game, the Badgers are in great shape offensively. Hawkeyes get it done.

LSU (+23) at No. 6 Florida (6 p.m., ESPN): You want to know who would look good in a Bears uniform next season? Gators QB Kyle Trask, that’s who. Chomp, 38-21.

My favorite favorite: No. 16 USC (-2½) at UCLA (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7): The unbeaten Trojans are buried in the playoff rankings and plenty ticked about it. A prime-time stage against the Bruins — who are better than many realize — presents a heck of an opportunity.

My favorite underdog: Arkansas (+32½) vs. No. 1 Alabama (11 a.m., ESPN): Defense is just a rumor in Fayetteville, but the Hogs can score. If they need to backdoor this sucker against Nick Saban’s backups, so be it.

Last week: 8-3 straight-up, 10-1 vs. the spread. Please, hold the applause.

Season to date: 41-19 straight-up, 36-23-1 vs. the spread.

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