Northwestern, Illinois end dismal seasons against each other
Saturday, November 23, 2002
EVANSTON, Ill. -- There is no Big Ten championship on the line. No hope for a bowl game, not even a winning record.
No, when Illinois and Northwestern meet today they'll be playing for little else than a chance to end disappointing seasons with a win -- something neither team did much of this year.
For Northwestern coach Randy Walker, it's still enough.
"You cast the records aside and you cast all the disappointment aside," Walker said. "It's a big game. Every game has a certain passion or a certain intensity, but especially when you know it's your last game of the year."
When the two teams met last year, there was plenty at stake for Illinois. The 34-28 win gave the Illini their first outright Big Ten title in 18 years and sent them to a BCS bowl game.
After a 1-5 start this season, Illinois (4-7, 3-4 Big Ten) finally looked like a bowl team once again, winning three of four heading into last week's matchup with No. 2 Ohio State.
Illinois nearly pulled off the upset, taking Ohio State to overtime before losing 23-16.
A win would have put Illinois one victory away from a bowl berth. Instead, it's a deflated Illinois team that plays Northwestern after coming so close to turning around its season.
"You feel like that, but at the same time, the season's not over," linebacker Matt Sinclair said. "We've still got a game to play. All we can do is go out and play for pride. And we have a bunch of guys who are going to go out and fight regardless of the record of the team we're playing or whether we're bowl-bound."
In 2000, it was the Wildcats who needed a win over Illinois for a share of the Big Ten championship and they got it in a big way, beating Illinois 61-23.
That league title must seem like eons ago to Walker.
The Wildcats (3-8, 1-6) are assured of their second-straight losing season. They have one of the worst defenses in the country and have been outscored by an average of 47-21 over their last five games.
"It's going to be a formidable task," Walker said. "They come in playing better football. Even in defeat, they got everybody's attention.
"It will be a situation where you have two senior classes from both schools that have won championships in the Big Ten, and you want to send them off the right way. You also want to set a tone for the future."