Sports

Illini, Wildcats try to ruin each other's seasons in rivalry that usually lacks spark

  • Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, center, reacts as Ibraheim Campbell (24) heads to the sidelines after a pass interception late in the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014, in West Lafayette, Ind. Northwestern defeated Purdue 38-14. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

    Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, center, reacts as Ibraheim Campbell (24) heads to the sidelines after a pass interception late in the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014, in West Lafayette, Ind. Northwestern defeated Purdue 38-14. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)  (The Associated Press)

  • FILE - In this Oct. 11, 2014, file photo, Illinois coach Tim Beckman directs his team during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin, in Madison, Wis. While keeping track on rivalries and games with playoff implication, there are a few coaching hot spots to keep an eye on this weekend. The Illini have taken baby steps forward in Beckman's three seasons (2-10, 4-8, 5-6 and zero, one and two Big Ten wins). The problem is fans aren't buying into the progress. Attendance for the senior day victory against Penn State on Saturday was announced at 35,172, but appeared closer to 10,000. (AP Photo/Andy Manis, File)

    FILE - In this Oct. 11, 2014, file photo, Illinois coach Tim Beckman directs his team during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin, in Madison, Wis. While keeping track on rivalries and games with playoff implication, there are a few coaching hot spots to keep an eye on this weekend. The Illini have taken baby steps forward in Beckman's three seasons (2-10, 4-8, 5-6 and zero, one and two Big Ten wins). The problem is fans aren't buying into the progress. Attendance for the senior day victory against Penn State on Saturday was announced at 35,172, but appeared closer to 10,000. (AP Photo/Andy Manis, File)  (The Associated Press)

  • Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt (12) throws a pass during the first quarter of an NCAA football game against Penn State, Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014, at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Bradley Leeb)

    Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt (12) throws a pass during the first quarter of an NCAA football game against Penn State, Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014, at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Bradley Leeb)  (The Associated Press)

Though they're separated by 150 miles and face each other every season, Northwestern-Illinois is a rivalry that lacks intensity.

In a conference where history is ever-present, the Wildcats and Illini play for a 4-year-old trophy known as the Land of Lincoln. In many seasons, like this one, both teams have losing records. And in the state's biggest city, the game generates little if any buzz.

But Saturday's edition could add a little spark.

Both teams are 5-6 (Northwestern is 3-4 in the Big Ten, Illinois 2-5), a win away from bowl eligibility — and a loss away from clearing out their lockers.

"Games like this — playing to ruin each other's seasons — are going to help," said Illinois receiver Mike Dudek, who never heard much about the rivalry while growing up in the Chicago suburb Naperville

The stakes are higher at Illinois, where third-year coach Tim Beckman could be coaching for his job. Rumors about his job security have hounded him all season.

A pair of quarterback-related story lines and other things to keep an eye on Saturday at Ryan Field in Evanston:

QUARTERBACK, PART I: Northwestern will finish its season without starter Trevor Siemian. He tore a knee ligament in last weekend's win at Purdue, Fitzgerald said.

On the bus ride home, "We had, I think, one of those talks that you never like to have," the coach said.

The Wildcats will start junior Zack Oliver, who is 7-19 for 146 yards and a touchdown in three appearances this fall.

QUARTERBACK, PART II: Illinois' usual starter, Wes Lunt, is expected to play, but he's coming off two sluggish games after returning from a broken leg. It isn't clear who will start.

Backup Reilly O'Toole replaced Lunt last week, and will almost certainly at least play.

O'Toole isn't the passer that Lunt is, but he's a much better runner and found ways to make key throws in last weekend's win over Penn State.

JUSTIN JACKSON: The best offensive weapon in the game may be Wildcats running back Justin Jackson, who has rushed for 1,057 yards on 221 carries and has eight touchdowns.

One of the hard-running freshman's strengths is something the poor-tackling Illini defense has struggled with.

"He doesn't go down with one tackler," Beckman said. "You better be gang tackling."

BOWL FOCUS: Coaches and players from Illinois and Northwestern are taking very different approaches to the bowl possibilities ahead.

The Illini talk openly about the obvious, that they'd like to win to get to a bowl e.

"It's almost like the playoffs," Beckman said.

Fitzgerald makes a point of talking only about the next game on the schedule, and his players, at least publicly, go to great pains to do the same.

Asked whether he's paying any attention to the widely available bowl projections, offensive lineman Brandon Vitabile worked to hold back a laugh as he played dumb.

"They do those?" he asked.

ROAD WOES: If Illinois is going to get that sixth win, it'll require their first road win of the 2014 season.

The Illini are 0-4 away from home, with losses at Washington, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Ohio State. And they haven't been close, by an average of 26.8 points.