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Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette Illinois players sing Illinois Loyalty with fans following the NCAA football game against Rutger's on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019.Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette Illinois players sing Illinois Loyalty with fans following the NCAA football game against Rutger's on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019.

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CHAMPAIGN — Hate might be too strong a word.

Disdain works. Despise is in the ballpark. Dislike certainly fits.

All the powerful D words describe the feeling from the Illinois football team toward Northwestern. And, I assume, vice versa.

The teams meet for the 113th time when they kick off at 11 a.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium. After years of dominance by the Illini, Northwestern’s recent surge has made the overall record close. Illinois leads 55-52-5.

The Wildcats have won the last four and six of the last seven to close the gap even more. It’s a flip of the series from 1979-90, when the Illini took 10 of 12.

The Illini are tired of it. They want to take the series back, like they did earlier in the year against Wisconsin and Purdue. Division rivals they play every season.

“Being able to go out there and get a W against Northwestern, even though we haven’t gotten one since I’ve been here, that would be huge for us,” Illini fifth-year senior defensive tackle Jamal Milan said.

The seniors have one last chance to show they are the best Big Ten team in the state.

“I really do love this team and this program and especially these seniors,” Milan said. “We’ve all come so far. We’ve fought so much. And we’ve given so much to this program. I feel like everyone is going to give it their all.”

With students gone for the weekend and many in the area out of town because of the Thanksgiving holiday, the crowd will be on the small side.

Doesn’t matter. The teams could play in a parking lot and still be fired up.

Don’t believe it? Just check with the players.

“How much do I want to beat Northwestern?” senior defensive tackle Kenyon Jackson said. “I think I want to beat them so bad. If there was a Richter scale, it would just blow up. It’s been too many years just not beating them. The fans don’t like Northwestern. We hate Northwestern.”

Same question for redshirt junior center Doug Kramer. How much does he want to win?

“Very bad. I have not beaten them. I’m 0-3,” Kramer said. “This all started growing up. As an Illinois fan, you understand this is the rival. It’s always the game you want to win.”

All year, senior linebacker Dele Harding has treated every team the same. So, that’s his plan for Saturday.

“For us, we just go out and play the best ball we can, be the best us we can be,” Harding said.

He isn’t worried about Northwestern’s 2-9 record.

“Right now, they are winless in the Big Ten,” Harding said. “I can relate back to those times and no other team showed us any mercy.”

Not their color

As in purple. Northwestern’s color of choice. And one not so popular with the Illini.

“What’s purple?” Jackson said. “It’s orange and blue. I don’t think I have any purple at home. Purple’s not my main color.”

“I dislike purple,” Harding said. “I don’t even know what color that is. Not this week.”

Illini tailback Reggie Corbin wore purple at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C.

“But not a Northwestern purple,” Corbin said. “I hate that purple. That’s like a nasty purple. The Gonzaga purple, I love it.”

The prize that goes to Saturday’s winner has been in Evanston for a while. The Land of Lincoln Trophy is a bronze hat that honors the former president.

“We’re just so hungry for that Land of Lincoln Trophy,” Jackson said.

Coaching corner

Lovie Smith hasn’t won against Northwestern as Illinois head coach.

Unlike the past three seasons, the Illini enter as the favorite. The coach isn’t taking anything for granted.

“I know what their record is,” Smith said. “It’s rivalry week around a lot of different places and the same comments are being made. It doesn’t matter what the record is when you play a rival.

“That’s definitely the case. Any team coached by Pat Fitzgerald, you know how they’re going to play: 60 minutes of clean football all the way. We’re going to do the same thing.

“I don’t know what their motivation is. I just know what ours is. Having an opportunity to win seven games is big. Get another streak going as much as anything.”

A year ago, Northwestern was on its way to the Big Ten title game and a bowl. Illinois tried to spoil the Wildcats’ season, losing a close game in Evanston.

“Last year, what we were trying to do was win a football game and get a bad taste out of our mouth,” Smith said. “Northwestern had a good season going. There was no more than that.

“The last quarter of that game, I saw our football team take a step. We lost the game in the end. But I think our team saw what we could be going forward.”

Past Illinois coaches have had contempt for the Wildcats. They called them “The Team Up North” or worse.

Smith won’t go there.

“I’m where everybody else is that’s playing a rival,” Smith said. “I’ve been in sports a little bit. There’s a rival you have everywhere. Big Sandy High School is where I went to school.”

Nearby Hawkins was the team Big Sandy most wanted to beat.

“You know who your rival is every step along the way and what’s at stake,” Smith said. “Whatever word you want to use, you need to beat your rival. It’s as simple as that.”

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).

College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).