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updated: 11/29/2013 4:51 PM

Illini, Wildcats playing for trophy, pride

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  • Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase looks to pass against Purdue in the second half of an NCAA college football game in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013. Illinois won 20-16.

      Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase looks to pass against Purdue in the second half of an NCAA college football game in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013. Illinois won 20-16.

  • Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian (13) leaps over Michigan State defensive end Joel Heath (92) during the second half of an NCAA football game on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, in Evanston, Ill.

      Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian (13) leaps over Michigan State defensive end Joel Heath (92) during the second half of an NCAA football game on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, in Evanston, Ill.

 
By David Mercer
Associated Press

CHAMPAIGN -- Northwestern started the season with Big Ten-title ambitions and spent time this fall in Top 25. Illinois spent the last three months trying to show some kind of progress, anything better that the two wins it had in 2012.

Each has four wins and is assured of a losing season as the Illini host the Wildcats on Saturday. The finale means something different for each.

At Northwestern (4-7, 0-7 Big Ten), seven straight losses and the optimism the Wildcats had back in September have combined to leave a bad taste in players' mouths.

"That's definitely something we're going to draw on for this next game and the off season, use that as motivation to not let this happen again," junior safety Jimmy Hall said.

At Illinois (4-7, 1-6), fresh off a win over Purdue that broke a 20-game conference losing streak, four wins is twice as many as last season. And with a shot at a fifth, there's something that sounds a little like optimism brewing in Champaign.

"This program's gotten better, we've made strides," said coach Tim Beckman, whose job security has been the subject of off-and-on speculation since late last season, his first at Illinois.

Some things to know about this rivalry game:

Is Kolter done?

It isn't clear whether Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter has finished his college career or not. The senior left last Saturday's Michigan State game after a wallop by Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis.

"As you would expect after taking a hit like that, he is pretty sore, pretty banged up," coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

Colter didn't practice early in the week with what Fitzgerald will only call an upper body injury, but the coach hasn't ruled him out. If Colter can't play, junior Trevor Siemian is the go-to guy. He's averaging 157.7 passing yards a game and has more interceptions -- nine -- than his seven touchdowns. Colter's first college game was against Illinois, a 48-27 Illinois win at Wrigley Field.

The Scheelhaase era:

Colter's counterpart, Nathan Scheelhaase, will finish his four seasons as a starter at Illinois on Saturday, and could write himself into one of the top spots in the Illini record book. Scheelhaase needs 323 yards Saturday to break Juice Williams' school record of 10,594 yards of total offense. He topped 10,000 last week in the win over Purdue, becoming just the 10th player in Big Ten history to do so.

"I've been around football my whole life," Beckman said. "There's not many Nathan Scheelhaases out there."

Coaching carousel:

Scheelhaase has been the face of the program through four up-and-down seasons -- he quarterbacked Illinois' only back-to-back bowl wins but also saw his first head coach, Ron Zook, fired.

The redshirt senior had five different offensive coordinators in his five years on campus So is there any surprise that there is one job Scheelhaase just can't see himself doing when his football career ends?

"I don't think it will be coaching, at least not on the college level," he said. "I think I've seen over the years just how tough the coaching world is, what those hours look like. ... I don't know if I'm necessarily ready to do that to myself yet."

A little Illini defense:

Illinois' defense came alive in the win over Purdue, its first solid game in weeks. The Illini gave up two first-quarter touchdowns, then just 133 yards and, aside from a game-ending safety, no points the rest of the way. That kind performance, defensive coordinator Tim Banks said, was "much needed, and very happy for our kids."

Land of Lincoln:

There is another of the Big Ten's signature rivalry trophies at stake in this one, but there isn't much history behind it. The series between the teams is 121 years old, but the Land of Lincoln Trophy is just four years old. The replica of Abe Lincoln's hat was introduced in 2009.

With not much at stake beyond that hat this season, neither team has talked up the rivalry much. Both Fitzgerald and Beckman, who at times in the past has declined to talk about Northwestern by name, both spoke this week about mutual respect.

And, given the team's records, the name of the trophy -- or at least its initials -- has generated a chagrined laugh or two. On Twitter, a few fans are calling Abe's stovepipe the #LOLhat.

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