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Lovie, Illini have eyes on Land of Lincoln Trophy

The Illini are aiming to beat Northwestern for the first time in six years.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Lovie Smith led off his weekly press conference with a simple comment about the game on the final game on the Illini’s regular season schedule.

“Nothing like rivalry week. No matter what level of football you play, there’s a team that you want to beat a little bit more than everybody else. That’s definitely the case this week.”

When it comes to Illinois football, the biggest rival circled on the schedule year in and year out is Northwester — the team that has signs all over state’s biggest city that read “Chicago’s Big Ten team.”

The problem for Illinois, however, is that that sign has been true. The Illini have struggled against Northwestern, especially in the Lovie Smith era.

“For us, five years is too long,” Smith said.

The Illini have not yet beaten the Wildcats since Smith has become head coach, and are just one for their last seven against Northwestern. Illinois hasn't strung consecutive wins together over Northwestern since 2010-11.

“It’s important, just talking about the rivalry in itself,” Smith said. “That’s enough to make you want to win in the worst way.”

Smith even put into perspective how long it has been since the Illini have knocked off the Wildcats.

“The trophy that we’re getting [if the Illini win] has a different name [since the last time Illinois won it],” Smith said.*

*Smith’s comment isn’t necessarily true. The rivalry was previously played for the Sweet Sioux Trophy, but it changed to the LoL Trophy in 2009. Illinois has won the LoL Trophy three times.

But it will not be an easy win to notch for Illinois, as Northwestern enters the game ranked No. 15 in the country — the Wildcats’ highest ranking for a game against Illinois since 2001.

So what would make Smith, the coach of a 2-4 team, so confident in his chances against Northwestern this week.

“If you just look at us play, without going into records, stats and all that,” Smith said, “we have a legitimate chance to win each week now. That hasn’t always been the case. We are better in all areas.”

Northwestern has a high-ranked defense, allowing fewer than 16 points per game to opposing offenses. Offensively the Wildcats score nearly 25 per game. Illinois on the other hand scores just under 22 points per game, while allowing more than 30 on average.

For Illinois, the game will likely depend on the ability to run the football and take the football away — something that has been very prevalent in the Illini’s two wins and absent in the four losses.

“We’re gonna do everything we possible can to win,” Smith said.

The Wildcats own the fourth-ranked rushing defense in the Big Ten and the top-ranked defense in efficiency, compared to Illinois’ second-ranked rushing offense. On the offensive side of the ball Northwestern ranks near the bottom of the conference in efficiency.

Lovie Smith has two mottos that he has displayed throughout his tenure at Illinois:

  • “We get off the bus running the football.”
  • “Taking the ball away is in our identity.”

Illinois is going to need both to knock off No. 15 Northwestern this year.

“We have ended some streaks,” Smith said in reference to the program’s win over Nebraska this year and the wins over Wisconsin and Michigan State last year. “And we’re looking to end another one this week.”