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A closing victory over ‘that team upstate’ would delight Illinois football

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (2) runs ball during second half an NCAA college football game against Northwestern Saturday Oct. 1

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (2) runs the ball during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Northwestern Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011, in Champaign, Ill. Illinois defeated Northwestern 38-35. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

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Updated: December 22, 2012 6:32AM

Nate Scheelhaase knew it was a mistake almost as soon as he said it.

‘‘I’ll probably get in trouble for saying it,’’ the junior quarterback said.

At Illinois, they’re not supposed to say, ‘‘Northwestern.’’ In new coach Tim Beckman’s lexicon, it’s ‘‘that team upstate,’’ apparently a variation on ‘‘that team up north’’ from his days as an assistant coach at Ohio State.

Scheelhaase can relax, though. Even Beckman, who famously put up a Northwestern logo with a red line through it in the Illinois squad room, has used the word a couple of times this week. He knows what beating Northwestern (11 a.m. Saturday, BTN) and Pat Fitzgerald would mean to his staff and players as well as a frustrated Illini Nation.

‘‘It’s huge,’’ Beckman said. ‘‘The team upstate is a very good football team. It’s a very good program. Coach Fitzy has done a great job up there and that’s what rivalries are all about.’’

It’s an odd rivalry, though. When Illinois is going good, its followers tend to measure their program against the Michigans and Ohio States. When they’re down, they wonder why they can’t be more like Iowa and Wisconsin.

For Illini Nation, beating Indiana and Northwestern is supposed to be a given. IU always has one eye on basketball practice, and NU is that little private school.

The problem is, it hasn’t gone that way lately. Illinois has won its last two meetings with Northwestern, but is 7-10 against the Wildcats since Gary Barnett took the purple to Pasadena in 1995.

Responding to NU marketing itself as ‘‘Chicago’s Big Ten team,’’ Illinois has started billing itself as ‘‘Illinois. Our State. Our Team.’’

Following up its dramatic 48-27 win at Wrigley Field two years ago with a 38-35 rally to win in Champaign last year, Illinois celebrated by blaring ‘‘Sweet Home Chicago’’ at Memorial Stadium.

‘‘We have two different mottoes,’’ Scheelhaase said. ‘‘We kind of call each other out. That’s cool. Both teams have made a big deal about this rivalry the last two or three years.’’

Illinois, which has lost 13 straight Big Ten games, is a nearly three-touchdown underdog. But it welcomes another opportunity to get it right.

‘‘It’s big not only to get a win, but to play the way we’re capable of,’’ Scheelhaase said. ‘‘We’re steadily getting there. Northwestern’s probably feeling pretty good about themselves. They’ve played as tough as anyone in this conference. But when you go into a so-called rivalry game, you throw the records aside. You throw momentum aside. It comes down to one game, who’s the better team [that day].’’

It’s difficult to say where Illinois faces the taller order, on offense or defense.

The Illinois offense has scored more than 17 points only once in Big Ten play. And Northwestern, which has scored at least 28 points in five of its seven league games, features an explosive offense that excels at the big plays that have cost Illinois big-time this fall.

‘‘That’s their offense, that chunk-type play,’’ Beckman said. ‘‘You have to have great vision [to stop it]. You have to make sure you can open-field tackle in open space. It’s very important that we get 11 guys running to the ball. They’re playing with a bunch of guys that have been playing a lot of football. That’s why that offense has progressed and progressed.’’

Illinois will be without one of its best defenders, linebacker Jonathan Brown (shoulder).

But the Illini, who played well on defense last week without Brown, will go to Evanston intent on trying to salvage a victory.

‘‘Nobody’s packing it in,’’ defensive end Michael Buchanan said. ‘‘I still feel like we’re improving on things, and trying to set the tone for next year. So the guys next year don’t have to go through what we’re going through right now.’’

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