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ILLINUTGERS 2020: What started as an internet joke is evolving into something far more interesting

Rutgers’ rapid improvement under Greg Schiano has added stakes to this annual matchup.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Illinutgers started as a joke. It grew out of the ironic and self-aware underbelly of college football’s internet.

Illinutgers is an acknowledgement that some semblance of beauty and symmetry exist in annually matching up bottom dweller programs lacking the tenets that allow college football rivalries to flourish— geography, ebb and flows, and shared history. This isn’t a matchup for those who think college football revolves around Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson. Simply stated, this is a matchup few outside of Illinois or Rutgers Twitter know anything about.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Michigan State Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

But with Rutgers looking a like competent product under Greg Schiano and the Illini slowly — yes, slowly — crawling toward respectability, this annual matchup might be ready to take the next step.

From Joke to Anxiety

Illinutgers is evolving from a joke to a game that causes both teams and fanbases anxiety. Illinutgers feels like a game both teams feel they can win while simultaneously becoming a game neither team wants to lose.

Don’t get me wrong; in terms of actual Illini rivals, Rutgers fails to come anywhere near Northwestern, Wisconsin, or Iowa. But the Illini currently have no expectation of beating any of those teams. Rutgers, however, is a different story. This is a game the Illini have expected to win that is going to get harder to win. The path to bowl eligibility — the measure by which both teams determine the success of a season — runs through this matchup.

On Rutgers’ side of the rivalry, during former coach Chris Ash’s failed tenure, even beating the Illini has seemed farfetched. However, now that Schiano has shown Rutgers what a competent on-field product looks like, beating the Illini becomes important for fans nostalgic to have Rutger’s become a consistent bowl team.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Illinois at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

You could feel the anxiety as Illinois found itself down 20-10 early in the third quarter. Then relief set in as the Illini tied the game at 20. However, the Illini kept shooting themselves in the foot with two missed fourth-quarter field goals and the anxiety grew again.

When James McCourt then hit the game winning field goal with 3 seconds left, the jubilation mixed with relief from the Illini could be felt thousands of miles away.

Illinois v Rutgers Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images

Rutgers, meanwhile, could not hide the heartbreak.

Going forward, expect Illinutgers to mean something more than it has before.

Please let us play every year, Kevin Warren.