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Northwestern crushes Illinois 42-7 in a setting with no, um, rival

CHAMPAIGN — Let’s begin in the only appropriate manner, by praising Northwestern for busing a few hours to the south and ripping the face off its alleged bitter rival. The Wildcats’ 42-7 victory over Illinois was their seventh in a row and their ninth of the season, setting them up for a shot at a school-record-tying win No. 10 come bowl time.

Great stuff. Really, it is.

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“Forty-two unanswered [points] is a pretty good statement,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

Northwestern players celebrate win No. 9 on the season — a lopsided affair against "rival" Illinois. (Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

No argument here.

“This is one of the hottest teams in the country,” Fitzgerald said, “a team that has dominated back-to-back weeks and a team that I think has improved more than anyone else in the country.”

Have I said “great stuff” yet?

OK, I’m going to go negative in my inimitably charming way now.

I would’ve defied anyone to spend three-plus hours at Memorial Stadium on Saturday and try to see the glass — any glass — as half-full. The so-called Land of Lincoln rivalry game, scheduled on the final weekend of the regular season because it’s supposed to be a big deal, was a fly on the rear ends of, say, Alabama-Auburn and Michigan-Ohio State. You know, the real rivalry games.

Northwestern-Illinois was so irrelevant, it was almost as if it didn’t exist.

Fitzgerald referred to the Illini’s home as a “sleepy building.” It was a nicer way to say “empty.”

The student section was completely empty, with kids home for Thanksgiving. Which made me think: How utterly Illinois is it to have the supposed biggest home game of the season with no young people around to try to make it at least sound like something of an event?

The main stands were strewn with a swatch of orange here, a smattering of orange there. There was a typically tiny contingent of purple-clad Northwestern fans, because that fan base just plain does not travel. Kind of lame, isn’t it, for so few supporters of the red-hot ’Cats to seize the opportunity to take over an opponent’s stadium when tickets were basically being given away?

I get it. It’s just the way it is with our college football teams. While much of the rest of America flips out at November’s crescendo, we reach for the snooze button.

It was the lady refilling a tray of mini-hamburger buns in the press box who informed me that stadium staff had been told to expect a crowd of less than 10,000 — far punier than the announced crowd of about 30,000. I took her word for it. There was no need for a specific confirmation to see there was no one here.

All those empty seats missed an Illini performance befitting an 0-9 Big Ten team. They missed an absurdly young team — with 16 freshmen having started at least one game — and an apparently undisciplined one. As the going got extremely rough for the Illini, regular personal fouls weren’t enough. Junior defensive lineman Tito Odenigbo actually got ejected for throwing a penalty flag back at a referee.

“Whenever we get personals, that’s not what we’re about,” said Illini coach Lovie Smith, now 5-19 in two seasons at the school. “You don’t want to finish it that way. So all the guys who were part of that, that’s not the Illinois way by any means.”

There’s an Illinois way? Who knew?

“Were you expecting a national championship?” Smith asked rhetorically.

No, obviously. But it would be nice to experience a Land of Lincoln trophy game on the last Saturday of November without feeling like I got stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Ah, well. Congrats to Northwestern, a mighty fine team. Have I said “great stuff” yet?

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com