Despite losing its last three games, Illinois still has a shot to represent the West Division in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 3 -- but three rivalry games must go their way this weekend.
Not only do the Illini need Iowa to lose to Nebraska and Purdue to lose to Indiana, they need to holdon to the Land of Lincoln Trophy in Saturday's regular-season finale at Northwestern.
On paper, Illinois (7-4, 4-4) should be a significant favorite after coming within nine seconds of knocking off undefeated Michigan last week in the Big House. There's also the fact that Northwestern (1-10, 1-7) has dropped 10 games in a row -- the school's longest losing streak since a 14-game run from 1988-90.
"Northwestern is a 1-10 football team that has played really good," Illinois coach Bret 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."
Bielema's mother, Marilyn, passed away Thursday, so his week began with her visitation Sunday and burial Monday in his hometown of Prophetstown, Ill.
"Sunday was a really tough day," Bielema said. "I got home in the afternoon (and that was) the first time I've been around my family, so that was really, really, really tough. The visitation Sunday night had hundreds of people come through our little community."
Not only will Illinois be gunning to keep the Land of Lincoln Trophy, but Chase Brown will be shooting to claim the national rushing title. Brown leads the nation with 1,582 rushing yards -- 58 more than Minnesota's Mohamed Ibrahim -- and was named Tuesday as one of 10 semifinalists for the Doak Walker Award.
Northwestern, too, will be focused on the ground game. Sophomore walk-on Cole Freeman -- the team's fourth-stringer at the start of the year -- figures to make his second straight start at quarterback, but the Wildcats' only touchdown drive last week at Purdue came when running backs Evan Hull and Cam Porter took turns running out of the Wildcat formation.
Freeman completed 9 of 20 passes for 78 yards and one interception. He also fumbled twice while being sacked.
"He learned a ton of valuable quarterback college lessons on Saturday," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. "He did a lot of things really, really well and some things that he's going to learn and grow from. I was really proud of him. I think he stepped up for everybody. I'm sure he's going to step up again this week with his preparation and get ready to go play one week better against the Illini."
--Field Level Media