CHAMPAIGN — One week ago, the Illinois football team had eyes on a bowl game in what would have been a significant step forward in head coach Lovie Smith's third season.
Instead, Iowa came into Memorial Stadium last week and handed the Illini (4-7, 2-6) the worst loss in school history, dashing bowl hopes ahead of Saturday's season finale at Northwestern (7-7, 7-1)
There's still something to play for, the Land of Lincoln Trophy, but this will be the final game for eight Illinois seniors.
“When you go through a long season and you get to the final game, I think it’s pretty neat that your rival is your last game — especially in our situation," Smith said. "After a disappointing game to say the least against the last opponent, our guys realize who we’re playing and what we’re playing for: The Land of Lincoln Trophy. It’s been up there for too many years."
Illinois will end the season with at least double the amount of wins from last year, and the Wildcats, ranked No. 19 in the College Football Poll Rankings, will go to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship game — two different directions.
Northwestern lost three straight from Week 2 through Week 4, but has won six of the last seven games under head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
“I think he’s done an outstanding job," Smith said. "They’re playing for the championship right now so you see where their program’s come."
The Wildcats are led by quarterback Clayton Thorson, who ha 2,565 passing yards and 12 touchdowns this season. Northwestern, however, is last in the Big Ten in rushing offense, averaging 101.5 yards.
Northwestern could have a field day on the Illinois defense, which ranks last in the Big Ten, allowing 520.8 yards per game. The secondary was without Jartavius Martin and Sydney Brown last week.
Illinois has allowed 63 points three times — against Penn State, Maryland and Iowa — and allows a league-worst 277 passing yards per game.
“When you’re looking at any offense, first off it’s about the quarterback position," Smith said. "Thorson is an excellent football player, he makes great decisions and has helped them win a lot of games. He as much as anyone is a reason why they’re playing in the championship game. It starts there."
While Northwestern struggles on the ground, Illinois is on the other end of the spectrum, ranking second in the conference averaging 251.1 rushing yards, even after getting stopped by Iowa last week.
Running back Reggie Corbin left last week's game with an injury. His status is unknown for Saturday. If Corbin is unable to play, Ra'Von will be the feature back behind quarterback AJ Bush Jr., who figures to start in the finale.
"AJ played his guts out against Nebraska, he played his guts out against Minnesota," Rod Smith said. "I'm going to stick with AJ as long as we can because of what he showed me."
The Illini improved their win total in Lovie Smith's third year, but the defense has taken a step backwards. The search for a defensive coordinator will begin after the season, but first Illinois has eyes on spoiling the Wildcats' final home game.
“I think you talk about the state of the program after the season is completed," Lovie Smtih said. "To talk about where we are right now, we’re coming off a disappointing loss. You look at the season, we have four wins this year. That’s reality right now. We have the opportunity to finish with a good taste in our mouth. We talk about the process and going through the process, this is part of the process a little bit.
“If we look at overall, where our program is, we had senior day the other day so you saw who is leaving our program. We have a few guys coming who have chosen to join us in our program, and guys that we’ll get back. The state of the program is disappointment right now, but we have brighter days ahead."