The war of words is a key part of any college football rivalry. So Illini linebacker Martez Wilson gushed after the 48-27 victory over Northwestern last November at Wrigley Field, taking a swing at the Wildcats' marketing campaign, as if the title was up for grabs.
CHAMPAIGN -- The war of words is a key part of any college football rivalry.
So Illini linebacker Martez Wilson gushed after the 48-27 victory over Northwestern last November at Wrigley Field, taking a swing at the Wildcats' marketing campaign, as if the title was up for grabs.
"Our game plan showed who was Chicago's Big Ten team,'' said Wilson.
Ten months later, when asked Monday about Wilson's declaration, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald joked, "If I'm not mistaken, it's trademarked for Northwestern. Now that he's an NFL player, maybe we can (seek) some trademark infringements there.''
OK, so this isn't Ohio State-Michigan, Oklahoma-Texas or Army-Navy. The Illinois-Northwestern rivalry is somewhere closer to Kentucky-Louisville or Washington-Washington State. Yet when No. 24 Illinois (4-0) hosts Northwestern (2-1) in the Big Ten Conference opener for both teams Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN2), it goes further than those expressway billboards and commercials proclaiming Northwestern as Chicago's Big Ten team.
Before the Wrigleyville experience, Illinois won one of the previous seven meetings with Northwestern. Dating back to 1991, Illinois won eight of the past 20. Perhaps the Illini were edgy about anything that came out of Evanston, such as the budding perception around Chicago that Northwestern recruited a higher quality of student-athlete.
"I just don't buy into that,'' feisty Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said Tuesday. "It makes me mad. It should make our kids mad. I don't know what they meant, but I'd say we've got a bunch of great kids. By them saying that, they obviously think we don't have good kids.
"It's good. We'll go find out again.''
The statement, no matter where it started, struck a nerve with the Illini.
The dialogue goes much higher than the football field and the coaches office. Moments after he was announced as the Illinois athletic director, Mike Thomas said Illinois should be "the king of Chicago.'' It was direct assault on Northwestern. If Thomas plans to make the Illini more visible in Chicago, the first step is handling Northwestern.
While Illini fans like to believe Michigan and Ohio State are more like rivals, you'd better ask the heavyweights about that. The Columbus Dispatch doesn't count the number of days since the last time Illinois beat the Buckeyes. That's saved for Michigan's dry spell. (If you're wondering, that number reached 2,866 Monday.)
On that memorable day at Wrigley when college football returned to the landmark at the corner of Clark and Addison, Mikel Leshoure set a single-game school record with 330 yards rushing while the Illini covered 519 yards on the ground -- the most by the Illini since 1944.
The series has been entertaining, even if it's not a battle for anything other that braggin' rights and billboards. Most games went down to the wire, such as 2009 when Northwestern cornerback Sherrick McManis, the former Peoria Richwoods star, ripped the ball away from Jarred Fayson in the closing minutes of a 21-16 win that clinched another losing season for the Illini.
"Intense,'' said Illini middle linebacker Ian Thomas of the series, and he's not even a local. He grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
The talk between the two programs -- loaded with players from the state -- might just be that: talk.
"Bulletin board material,'' said Illini center Graham Pocic.
Others besides Petrino did use to it fuel the fire last November, when the Illini were trying to douse a late-season swoon that jeopardized gains made in the season first two months.
"We heard them say some things, like 'We recruit different kind of guys. They don't recruit our kind of guys,' '' said Ian Thomas. "We want to show them our kind of guys are better football players and a better team. "It's all fun in competition.''
That win over Northwestern last season made the Illini bowl eligible.
"It was really fun,'' said quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. "We plan for Saturday to be a whole lot more fun, too.''
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSupinie.
What's in a rivalry
Up for grabs: Land of Lincoln trophy, shaped like Abe's stove pipe hat. It replaced the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk trophy in 2009.
Series: Illinois leads 53-46-5
Home turf: Since 2001, Illinois' only one win over Northwestern in Memorial Stadium came in 2007 and helped the Illini earn a Rose Bowl berth.