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Illinois meets rivals Northwestern after an emotional loss to Michigan

It’s been an emotional last two weeks for Illinois coach Bret Bielema, his family and his Illini football family.

The team suffered an emotional loss for Michigan last week, sandwiched between the death of Bielema’s mother and his father-in-law’s death earlier this week.

On Saturday, the Illini wrap up their regular season with a rivalry game at 2:30 p.m. in Evanston against rivals Northwestern. Illinois is 7-4 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten. Northwest is 1-10 and 1-7.

There was still a chance the University of Illinois football team could win the Big Ten West and make it into the conference championship game, but without a Nebraska win over Iowa on Friday, Illini’s hopes would be dashed.

With or without the Cornhuskers’ victory over the Hawkeyes, the Illini and Bielema are busy with their own Rivalry Week showdown on Saturday at Ryan Field in the Northwest.

After the Michigan game, Bielema was back home in Prophetstown, Illinois to visit and bury his mother. He returned to the team on Tuesday.

“It was tough,” Bielema told the media on Tuesday. “Last Thursday and Friday, very early Saturday morning, was really emotional. Sunday was a really tough day. I came home in the afternoon. The first time I was with my family, it was really, really, really hard. During Sunday night’s visitation, hundreds of people passed through our small community.”

Then, earlier this week, news broke that his father-in-law had passed away.

“Coach Bielema did not appear on the radio show tonight,” the Illinois Sports Information Department said in a press release emailed Wednesday. “His family is going through a difficult personal affair. Greg Hielsberg, the father of Coach Bielema’s wife Jen, passed away earlier this morning. Please respect Coach Bielema, Jen and their family’s privacy at this time.”

Even though there’s no division championship at stake on Saturday, the rivalry with the Wildcats is at stake. The teams compete for the Land of Lincoln Hat trophy.

After setting the West ablaze with their surprise 7-1 start, the Fighting Illini lost their grip on the Big Ten West Division and are now sitting in a three-way tie for first place West, while Purdue and Iowa are in the final games go the regular season.

In addition to an Iowa loss to Nebraska, the Illini also need an Indiana win over rival Purdue to win the West — and, of course, an Illinois win over the Wildcats. With Nebraska meeting Iowa on Friday, the Illini will know by the time they step onto the field whether or not the West is still in the game. So is Purdue’s Boilermakers, who take on the Hoosiers in Bloomington, Indiana at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

Illinois lost 19-17 at No. 3 Michigan last week when Jake Moody scored a 35-yard field goal for the Wolverines with nine seconds to go-toe, only to watch it slip away. Frustration with the office was a big part of the package.

The teams in the west are at an impasse because neither team has been able to run away and hide with the divisional leadership. When Illinois was 7-1 overall and 4-1 in the conference, the Illini had to lose, and by the time games got underway over the weekend they were dangerously close.

It was a back and forth of frustration for the Illini, Hawkeyes and Boilermakers. Illinois also lost to Indiana, Michigan State and Purdue while Iowa defeated Purdue. And, just for fun, throw in the fact that Northwestern’s only win on the opening weekend of the season came at a game in Ireland, at the expense of Nebraska.

It’s the Wildcats that the Illini are focusing on now. Northwestern is having its worst season since 1989, when it went 11-0, but Bielema and Illinois fans know not to suspect their state rivals.

The Illini defeated Northwestern 47-14 in Champaign last season.

“Northwestern is a 1-10 football team that played really well,” Bielema said. “If you ask Ohio State and Purdue, they will tell you. They come to play, they are physically fit and well trained.”

Northwestern, who lost in Illinois last season, would like to inflict another loss on the Illini and make them wait for an invite to a lower bowl game. The Wildcats have lost 16 of their last 17 games. But they struggled against No. 2 in Ohio State but lost 21-7 at Evanston on Nov. 5. They fell 17-9 at Purdue last week, a week after the Boilermakers won 31-24 in Illinois.

“They were in a (Big Ten) championship game two years ago,” Bielema said of the Wildcats. “It’s not like they forgot how to win games there.”

The Illini have not won eight or more games since the 2007 Rose Bowl season. They are also looking for their first win in the conference since going 6-2 in the league this season.

The Illinois defense continues to lead. It ranks second in the nation overall and seventh compared to run. U of I defenders held Michigan down for much of the game last week after the Wolverines scored on their first drive of the game.

The Illini are second in the nation with 17 interceptions, a pick behind Southern Cal. Defensemen Kendall Smith and Sydney Brown rank 12th in the nation and second in the Big Ten with four interceptions. Illinois is the only two-player team in the nation with at least four interceptions.

Illinois’ identical twin Sydney Brown’s Chase Brown remained the nation’s leading rusher after last week’s defeat in Michigan. He’s 116 yards away from the U of I’s single-season rushing record. Last Saturday he rushed for 140 yards against Michigan, the 16th game in which he rushed for 100 yards or more in Illinois.

Brown has 1,582 yards on the ground and needs 1,156 yards to break Mikel Leshoure’s year-long school rushing record of 1,697 set in 2010. Brown rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns against one of the best defenses in the nation last week. Northwestern is among the worst-managed defenses in the nation, allowing 194.5 yards per game.

Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito has a 70 percent completion rate, which is the third best in the nation. He has a cumulative passer rating of 143.7. The school record of 141.6 was set by Wes Lunt in 2014.

Northwest running back Evan Hull. Hull has five games this season and 11 over four years with at least 100 yards rushing after playing 105 against Purdue last week.

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