One of the distinguishing factors of college football’s Rivalry Week, always the final slate of the regular season, is an added intensity, chippiness and belief that either side can prevail. After all, that’s bound to happen when some decades-old trophies, and significant bragging rights, are on the line.
When Northwestern strapped up its pads to take on Illinois last year for the Land of Lincoln Trophy, though, those sentiments quickly vanished for the Wildcats. The Fighting Illini jumped out to a 17-0 lead at halftime, which only doubled to 34-0. The final 41-3 score reflected just how lopsided the affair was, with NU committing six turnovers. In fact, the 38-point margin tied the largest in the in-state series since 2000.
Last November, Illinois didn’t just retain the HAT from the year before: the Illini, effectively, put it above their heads and out of reach from down below. In 2021, Northwestern faced a similar fate, losing 47-14 in Champaign while surrendering 459 total yards. It marked the end of a six-game winning streak over the team in orange and blue.
Having been outscored 88-17 across the last two years, it would surprise few if Wildcat fans and players had dubious thoughts creep in about their ability to claim the HAT for the first time since 2020. But, the team is eager for an opportunity to amend its play against maybe its fiercest competitor.
“We didn’t play to the best of our abilities, obviously,” cornerback Garnett Hollis Jr. said, noting injuries for NU in the 2022 game. “I think this year is going to be a way different story.”
When the ‘Cats battled the Illini at Ryan Field last November, Bret Bielema’s team claimed the HAT primarily because of an elite defense. Illinois had three members of its secondary — Devon Witherspoon, Jartavius Martin and Sydney Brown — get selected in the first three rounds of the 2023 NFL Draft. That unit snatched five interceptions, and Brown even scored twice.
Even though Illinois’ defensive backfield looks markedly different this time around, Northwestern receiver Bryce Kirtz expects a similar magnitude of chirping, as he’s grown accustomed to over four years of rivalry matchups.
“It definitely gets you going, because those dudes, they do talk a lot out there on the field,” Kirtz said. “You kind of remember that from the year before.”
Unlike 2021 and 2022, though, the Wildcats are now more than a Big Ten bottom-feeder. NU enters Memorial Stadium having won three of its last four games and already securing a bowl berth. Yet, the road to six wins was anything but linear.
The last time the ‘Cats played in a Memorial Stadium — in Lincoln, Nebraska — seemed like a possible death knell. David Braun & Co. fell 17-9 to the Cornhuskers, leaving umpteen opportunities on the field and sitting at 3-4. Tension was palpable postgame, with Braun calling the locker room “crushed.” Kirtz posited that the team wasn’t “physical enough” and needed to “prepare better.”
Over a month later, it turns out that that once-deflating outcome may have served as a watershed moment for Northwestern, which has put an onus on its habits in Hutcheson Field and Ryan Fieldhouse since late October.
“Every time we come into practice and we’re physical, and we’re intent with what we’re doing, we always have good games — whether it be the physicality, or just the focus aspect of it,” Kirtz said. “Whenever we emphasize it in practice, we always come out the next week, and we perform that way. I think we’ve kind of realized that as a team now. Every week now, we’re coming and bringing everything we have during practice.”
Braun and other players, like quarterback Ben Bryant, have also touched upon the translation between heightened preparatory work and playing sharper on Saturdays. That has particularly rung true following defeats, as a seemingly fired up NU has gone 5-0 subsequent to a loss. Although some coaches could institute more work in full pads, Kirtz underscored a higher collective tenacity and effort in practice as a sparkplug.
“Finishing to the whistle,” Kirtz explained as a paramount change. “It’s easy to just stop in the middle of practice. It’s practice; nobody really wants to be here, but we have to. Really just finishing until the whistle and finishing 100%.”
In addition to leveraging better drills, another factor contributing to Northwestern’s latest 3-1 run is an opportunistic defense. The Wildcats still haven’t looked completely stifling on D, as evidenced by surrendering 443 yards to Purdue on Saturday. But, in that span, NU has collected eight takeaways, including four from members of its starting secondary — a bunch that’s allowed one receiver to gain over 78 yards in the last four games. On the season, Northwestern ranks sixth in the conference in passing defense EPA/play.
“We’ve been playing real confident these last couple weeks,” Hollis said. “If they [the Illini] want to try to throw the ball around, our back end has been doing its job. They’re going to have a rough day.”
The biggest challenge posed to the Wildcats’ corners this week will be Isaiah Williams, who paces the Big Ten in receptions and is second to only Marvin Harrison Jr. in yards. The junior has especially hit his stride as of late, posting Madden-like numbers with 30 catches for 436 yards and four touchdowns in his last three matchups. Nevertheless, Hollis has faith that he and his teammates can limit the formidable force.
“He’s quick; he’s a good player. He’s good with the ball in his hands after the catch,” Hollis said, mentioning that he isn’t planning on shadowing Williams. “We’ve got a deep room in the back end, and we all can cover. We’re going to have to limit him as much as we can, but I don’t think we’re going to have a problem.”
For seniors Kirtz and Hollis, Saturday could prove to be their final regular-season games at Northwestern, and last appearances in the Land of Lincoln Rivalry. The two said they haven’t decided one way or another about declaring for the 2024 NFL Draft. Most pressing, no doubt, is beating their downstate foe — a drought that could soon come to an end, as so many have for NU in 2023.
“We know in the back of our head, we’ve got to get our revenge,” Kirtz said. “Get the HAT back.”