CHAMPAIGN — When Bret Bielema first arrived at Illinois, he thought Illinois players did a bit too much talking about the Northwestern rivalry.
A week-and-a-half before Bielema was hired, then Illinois linebacker Milo Eifler made some eyebrow-raising comments about the Wildcats.
“I hate the color purple, Northwestern is an awful school,” Eifler said before the Illini’s 2020 game at Northwestern. “Evanston, I don’t even know where that is. We have to come in there with a focused mindset and take care of business. There’s always a chip on your shoulder when it’s a rivalry. It’s good that they’re in state. We get to beat up on our little brother.”
The problem was that Illinois at that point had lost five straight to Northwestern — and then went out and lost a largely uncompetitive 28-10 game in Evanston for a sixth straight loss. Illinois head coach Lovie Smith, who was 0-5 against the Wildcats, was fired the next day.
Bielema, who has had a great relationship with NU coach Pat Fitzgerald since they both became first-time head coaches in the Big Ten in 2006, Illinois wanted to be more about substance on the field than smack talk off of it.
“When I got here, there were some things that were said from our end, from the Illinois end, that to me were a little bit out of bounds for someone that had lost six in a row to them,” Bielema said. “Really talked about respect. I showed that Wisconsin and Northwestern when I got here at that time had won the last five (Big Ten West titles).”
Illinois responded well last season to Bielema’s new tactics, dominating Northwestern 47-14 in last year’s season finale to claim the Land of Lincoln Trophy for the first time since 2014.
Now, the script of the two programs seems flipped. Illinois (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten) has lost three in a row (all by a single possession) entering Saturday’s 2:30 pm kickoff but has clinched a bowl game, still has a small chance to win the Big Ten West and is a 14-point road favorite at Ryan Field.
“He’s done a great job since he’s been at Illinois,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re playing at a very high level in all three phases and have guys up for multiple awards, not only in the Big Ten but nationally. It’s very well-deserving. It’ll be a hard-fought battle. It’s always a tough battle when you play on rivalry week. They’ve got the Land of Lincoln Trophy, and we’re going to have play clean to compete and we’re going to have play our best game to have a chance to win the game.”
Meanwhile, Northwestern (1-10, 1-7 Big Ten) has lost 10 straight since its season-opening win over Nebraska in Ireland, including losses to Miami (Ohio) and Southern Illinois. While the Wildcats won the Big Ten West title during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Northwestern has won one or fewer Big Ten games (and three or fewer games overall) in three of the last four seasons.
Like the Illini many years in this rivalry matchup, the Wildcats are playing for pride in Saturday’s matchup.
“The way that we played [at Illinois last season] is enough motivation,” Fitzgerald said. “We didn’t execute very well at all in any phase of the game last year, and they played at a very high level. It doesn’t take long to pop on the tape and see that we’ve got to perform better to win. I’ve been on the winning side of this game quite a bit, so I’ve got a pretty idea of what it takes to win it. My hope is I can get the guys to play clean and play consistent here for one last time together.”
Despite Northwestern’s struggles and the Illini holding the Land of Lincoln Trophy heading into Saturday’s matchup, Bielema is still preaching that his players have a healthy respect for a Northwestern program that has earned it under Fitzgerald. Plus, Northwestern gave Ohio State a scare in a 21-7 loss at Evanston three weeks ago and the Wildcats also competed last week against Purdue in a 17-9 loss at West Lafayette.
“That’s my challenge to them this week. Northwestern is a 1-10 football team that has played really good,” Bielema said. “I think if you ask Ohio State and Purdue, two of their last three opponents, how good they are, I think they’d have an answer for you that they come to play every day, they’re extremely tough, they’re physical, they’re well-coached. They were in the championship game two years ago. It’s not like they forgot how to win games over there.”