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Northwestern vs. Illinois: A big one for two bad teams

Nathan Scheelhaase has been bright spot amid gloom during his career Illinois which ended 20-game losing streak Big Ten last

Nathan Scheelhaase has been a bright spot amid the gloom during his career at Illinois, which ended a 20-game losing streak in the Big Ten last week. | AP

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SATURDAY

NORTHWESTERN
AT ILLINOIS

The facts: 2:30 p.m., BTN, 560-AM, 720-AM.

The records: Northwestern 4-7, 0-7 Big Ten; Illinois 4-7, 1-6.

The line: Northwestern by 31⁄2.

Updated: January 1, 2014 6:13AM



These aren’t the seasons either team wanted.

Northwestern has gone from Big Ten title dreams to needing a win at Illinois on Saturday (2:30 p.m., BTN) to avoid an 0-8 conference wipeout.

Illinois ended its 20-game conference losing streak at Purdue last week, but that doesn’t end doubts about whether Tim Beckman is part of the solution or part of the problem for a struggling program.

“It’s about moving forward,’’ Beckman said of this final 2013 opportunity. “Nothing to brag about, but we’ve doubled our wins. I’d like to say we tripled or quadrupled our wins, but we didn’t. This program has gotten better [though]. We’ve made tremendous strides in the things we do.’’

Being able to hoist the Land of Lincoln Trophy would be a little more evidence for a team that could double its wins and still only be 4-7 thanks to Beckman’s ugly 2-10 debut.

NU also is 4-7, but the math is very different. It needs a victory to notch half the wins it accumulated in 2012, when it went 10-3. That included a victory in the Gator Bowl, which ended a bowl drought that dated to 1948.

Who knew then that the Cats would trade in their bowl skid for a Big Ten misery streak?

In its defense, NU’s 0-7 Big Ten record is marked by shocking meltdowns, rather than questions about Pat Fitzgerald and the program’s foundation. The Hail-Mary defeat at Nebraska, the overtime losses to Iowa and Michigan lead the heartbreak parade.

“It’s easy to get down as a fan when you lose games,’’ Fitzgerald said. “But if you’re truly ­understanding of football, you’ve seen a group of guys fight their tails off. They haven’t been successful, but you can’t fault these guys for their effort level. The things we faced this year were, quite frankly, pretty difficult. I’m proud of them. I fully expect they’ll play well on Saturday.’’

One thing is certain: This will be the last hurrah for a pair of ­franchise quarterbacks.

Nathan Scheelhaase has been a beacon for four years at turmoil-filled Illinois. It’s not even clear if Kain Colter, who is day-to-day with an injured throwing shoulder, will play in his last NU opportunity. If he’s able, Colter wants to end with a flourish.

“It’s been a great time,’’ Colter said. “We’ve had a lot of memories. We’re just trying to finish the season off strong. Get a win and leave feeling good.’’

Colter will always be remembered for helping NU end its infamous 64-year bowl losing streak against Mississippi State last New Year’s Day.

“I’ve had a lot of fun times, a lot of big games,’’ he said. “The biggest memory, though, is just of the guys, the brotherhood we have had here, the friendships I’ve formed.’’

Scheelhaase also has shown his class and resilience during a turbulent era in Illinois history. Among his many career highlights, he was on the winning end of a duel with future Heisman Trophy winner and Washington Redskin Robert Griffin III, when Illinois beat Baylor in the 2010 Texas Bowl.

Scheelhaase’s personal touch looms larger, though.

“Anyone who has been around him knows we’re going to miss not just a great player, but a great person,’’ Beckman said. “He’s involved in everything. There aren’t many Nathan Scheelhaase’s out there.’’

This Northwestern-Illinois match will look like a Hapless Bowl to outsiders. But there are likely to tears on both sidelines when it’s over.



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