CHAMPAIGN — In 2010, after dropping six straight football games to Missouri in St. Louis, the Illini elected to pull out of the series.
But they can’t dump Northwestern. Can’t avoid ‘em. Illinois is contractually obligated under Big Ten scheduling to continue forever this late-November season ender.
The fans are showing their disdain. Saturday’s official “tickets sold” attendance was under 40,000 for the eighth straight year (a misleading 35,895). By my count, there were about 290 well-clothed folks seated in the east upper deck in the first quarter. A small contingent of students huddled in the north section behind the UI band
Yes, it’s called a rivalry game. But true rivalries require larger turnouts and competitive contests, and “Chicago’s Big Ten school” has ruled in five straight and 13 of the last 17.
Repeatedly, both Saturday and harking all the way back to the 1930s, a perception has grown that the Evanston Wildcats take this in-state showdown more seriously than their downstate opponent.
It certainly appeared that way Saturday on the wet and wind-swept Memorial Stadium turf where the Wildcats, 0-8 in the Big Ten entering Saturday’s game, outrushed the bowl-bound (6-6) Illini, 378 to 14, in a 29-10 romp. NU’s fourth-string quarterback, Wyoming transfer Andrew Marty, ran for 111 yards and two TDs in an astonishing 30 carries as the visitors controlled the ball for nearly 42 of the 60 minutes.
Significantly, NU coach Pat Fitzgerald came in with a gambler’s mentality, preferring thrusts over punts in key situations, and the Wildcats converted four of six fourth-down efforts. From the outset, their dogged ball carriers gained extra yardage after contact.
Bowl mentality for ‘Cats
Whereas UI publicists reported Illinois was shorthanded without 18 injured varsitymen — including stars of earlier successes like quarterback Brandon Peters, receiver Josh Imatorbehbhe and linebacker Jake Hansen — Fitzgerald had no sympathy, reminding, “We’re on our No. 4 quarterback,” and then exaggerating, “It seems like we’ve gone through 20 running backs.”
While Illinois reverted to the dark days of Eastern Michigan (34-31 loss), reviving unhappiness with coach Lovie Smith (now 8-27 in four Big Ten seasons) and raising new questions about 2020, Fitzgerald saw the victory as a springboard for the future.
“We came into this game with a bowl mentality, a singleness of purpose,” Fitzgerald said. “Maybe we wouldn’t have run (Marty) 30 times if it wasn’t our last game. He is a leader, tough and physical.
“Our offensive line has grown and developed, and I thought we were physically dominant (Saturday). We were in four-wheel drive with our anti-weather plan and, even when it didn’t rain, we stayed with it. We’ve whipped our rival up front five years in a row.”
As for the veteran Illini offensive line, well ... Reggie Corbin, a 1,000-yard rusher last year, showed minus-10 in seven carries. ‘Nuf said.
Ugly afternoon for Illini
In analyzing the game, Illinois simply couldn’t sustain anything resembling a consistent offense. Couldn’t run, couldn’t pass, couldn’t tackle effectively.
The Wildcats marched early and often. They settled for an early field goal after Trey Pugh dropped a perfect pass in the end zone. The UI’s brief period of excitement came on an interception by Nate Hobbs and a looping 29-yard pass from Matt Robinson to Caleb Reams, setting up Dre Brown’s six-yard TD burst.
Other than James McCourt’s 50-yard field goal, that was it. NU led 17-10 and Raymond Nimo’s 62-yard breakaway put the Wildcats in position at the end of the third quarter. An end zone interception by safety Stanley Green was disallowed due to a penalty, and Marty scored from the 1-yard line. NU put icing on the cake with 1:09 left when Coco Azema broke free for a 24-yard score through the porous UI defense.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com