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Northwestern football has an old score to settle with Illinois

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trophy time

Illinois and Northwestern play for the Land of Lincoln Trophy, which replaced the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk in 2009. ­Illinois leads the series ­54-46-5. The last 10 games:

2011: Illinois 38, NU 35

2010: Illinois 48, NU 27

2009: NU 21, Illinois 16

2008: NU 27, Illinois 10

2007: Illinois 41, NU 22

2006: NU 27, Illinois 16

2005: NU 38, Illinois 21

2004: NU 28, Illinois 21

2003: NU 37, Illinois 20

2002: Illinois 31, NU 24

Updated: December 21, 2012 6:24AM

There might be some concern about Northwestern overlooking this week’s opponent if it was a team other than Illinois.

Finally, the Wildcats’ schedule is an asset. The regular season started with a road game against Syracuse, then four consecutive home games and included four opponents that had bye weeks to prepare for Northwestern. It ends Saturday at Ryan Field against Illinois (11 a.m., BTN) with the home team needing one more win to lock down a prime-time bowl bid.

Northwestern (8-3 overall, 4-3 Big Ten) won’t be taking the Illini (2-9, 0-7) lightly, either, not after what happened last season. Illinois rallied from an 18-point deficit to score the game-winning touchdown with 13 seconds left for a 38-35 victory. It was its second consecutive win after Northwestern had won six of the previous seven.

Many will remember what happened afterward, when “Sweet Home Chicago” blared from Memorial Stadium speakers, an obvious reference to Northwestern billing itself as “Chicago’s Big Ten team” more so than anything that happened during the game itself.

Although players and coaches downplayed it Monday, that memory, coupled with the knowledge that a win over its rival would allow Illinois to end a wretched season on a positive note, has NU wary heading into a game against an Illini team that has lost eight in a row.

“I wasn’t aware of that on the field,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said when asked about last season’s postgame serenade. “I was made aware of it after the game. The way people get excited about victories is up to them. I know how we handle it.”

Although both programs want to be identified with Chicago for marketing and recruiting purposes, Northwestern has more on its mind than the Land of Lincoln Trophy. A ninth win likely would send the Wildcats to the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day. The Outback Bowl and the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl also remain possibilities.

“Personally, I have not,” NU defensive back Ibraheim Campbell said when asked if he has been checking out bowl possibilities. “You can’t worry about things out of your control. We just have to worry about winning this game.”

Running back Venric Mark and quarterback Kain Colter are expected to play, according to Fitzgerald. Mark was injured during overtime of a Nov. 10 loss at Michigan. He tried to play Saturday, but his day ended at halftime. Colter suffered what a spokesperson called an “upper extremity injury” late in the third quarter against Michigan State.

Fitzgerald said cornerback Nick VanHoose likely will miss his fourth straight game with an “upper body injury.”

Fitzgerald said he would let his team know what’s at stake in terms of potential bowl bids later this week.

“It’s pretty simple,” he said. “If we win, we open up the opportunity for some neat stuff.”

While few expected Northwestern to have eight wins at this point in the season, it also has been a season of agonizing losses. A win over Illinois and an upper-tier bowl berth would take the sting away from the Wildcats blowing fourth-quarter leads in all three of their losses.

“I don’t know if anybody in the country has responded the way we have,” Fitzgerald said. “The credit for that goes to our players and our staff. Those have been difficult defeats. It’s not like we’ve walked into a locker room after a game and said, ‘Wow, we got outplayed; we got out-coached.’ We have just come up on the short end, and that’s frustrating. It’s also incredibly motivating.

‘‘As I look back at the last two games we played against Illinois, we haven’t played very well. That’s incredibly motivating to everybody in our football program.”

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