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posted: 7/28/2012 9:26 PM

Wildcats downplay talk of in-state rivalry with Illini

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  • Northwestern's new uniform in partnership with Under Armor

      Northwestern's new uniform in partnership with Under Armor
    Courtesy of Northwestern

  • Northwestern players will wear new uniforms this season.

      Northwestern players will wear new uniforms this season.
    Courtesy of Northwestern

  • Northwestern's new uniform in partnership with Under Armor

      Northwestern's new uniform in partnership with Under Armor
    Courtesy of Northwestern

 
By Chad Thornburg
cthornburg@dailyherald.com

New Illinois coach Tim Beckman has not been shy about proclaiming Northwestern as the Illini's top rival.

But the feeling doesn't appear to be entirely mutual.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and his players have yet to publicly reciprocate Beckman's efforts toward fueling the in-state rivalry.

"We just do things privately," Fitzgerald said. "It's just who I am and the way that we run our program. It's not to speak ill of them and how they do it and what they do. It's just the way we choose to do things."

Since replacing former coach Ron Zook in December, Beckman has targeted "the team upstate" and worked to build excitement around the Nov. 24 matchup in Evanston.

"That's what college football is all about," Beckman said. "We're going to make it a rivalry and we're going to make it a very, very important part of the football season."

Beckman has gone as far as installing signs in the locker room and meeting room displaying the Wildcats logo with the universal sign for "No" around it.

"That's awesome," said Northwestern offensive lineman Brian Mulroe when told of the sign. "That's good stuff."

Illinois leads the series with Northwestern 53-46-5, and the Illini currently hold the Land of Lincoln trophy -- having won two straight against the Wildcats, including last season's 38-35 comeback thriller.

Both teams finished the regular season 6-6 and each advanced to bowl games. The Illini defeated UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, while the Wildcats lost to Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.

Fitzgerald is no stranger to the history between Illinois and Northwestern. He grew up in the state and was a two-time All-American for the Wildcats. He said rather than promoting the rivalry, he's hoping to reel in his players' focus, keeping it on themselves.

"If you have too much in your vision, you don't see anything," he said. "That being said, we'll talk about the Land of Lincoln rivalry. We'll put it in the drawer and we'll pull it out at the appropriate time."

Northwestern linebacker David Nwabusi said the rivalry talk might appeal more to the fans that the players.

"You probably have Illinois guys working with Northwestern guys and everybody is talking smack in the office before we play each year," Nwabusi said. "For us it's just really another game on the calendar. ... It's an important game, but every week is an important game."

Let a committee select:

When the addition of Nebraska increased the number of Big Ten teams from 11 to 12, the conference was split into two divisions -- the Legends and the Leaders.

But this year, two of the schools in the the Leaders Division -- Penn State and Ohio State -- are ineligible for the Big Ten Championship game.

To combat the imbalance, Pat Fitzgerald proposed creating a selection committee for the Dec. 1 game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. He suggested that the winner of the Legends Division, of which the Wildcats are members, should automatically play for the conference title and then a committee made up of the 12 athletic directors and commissioner Jim Delany should select its opponent.

"That would make a little bit of sense to me," he said Thursday at Big Ten Media Day in Chicago. "Any way to get to Indianapolis, that's what it's all about, and I think that's what every team's focus is."

Defensive about defense:

When Fitzgerald was a player at Northwestern, he was among the nation's best in defense.

But the same can't be said about the Wildcats' defense under the former Big Ten defensive player of the year.

"Kind of like the artist formerly known as Prince," Fitzgerald joked.

Northwestern finished in the bottom fourth of the conference in total defense, rushing defense and passing defense last season, but Fitzgerald said he's not concerned where his team falls in the statistical categories.

"I'm a big believer that stats are for losers," he said. "The only stat that matters is winning. Would I like to have the No. 1 defense in the country in every category? Yeah, not going to happen, so get over it coach. I want to win ballgames."

The Wildcats players fielded many questions about last season's defensive performances at Big Ten Media Day on Thursday and Friday, but Nwabusi said the true answers will come Sept. 1 against Syracuse.

"I don't really want to answer any more of your questions," Nwabusi said. "I just want to get out on the field and show you all."

Best dressed:

Northwestern will feature a new look this season.

The Wildcats unveiled their new Under Armor uniforms Thursday. Northwestern is the first Big Ten school to partner with Under Armor for football uniforms.

Fitzgerald said he is happy that the new design still includes the traditional Northwestern stripe.

"You can see how it plays on the tradition of our campus, on the uniqueness to our tradition of the Northwestern stripe," he said. "And some people have accused me of being the youngest old school person in the country and I'm okay with that. To see the Northwestern stripe prominently displayed in our jersey, I think is classy."

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