CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It only takes one word for Dele Harding to describe the pain he’ll always feel about the in-state rivalry games against Northwestern.
“Hurt,” the Illinois senior linebacker and co-captain said. “It hurts. It’ll always hurt. This one [Saturday] is one I’ll always remember because of the hurt right now.”
Following the 29-10 loss to the hated in-state rival, the 17 Illinois seniors who were honored in the pre-game ceremony before their last home game will go winless against Northwestern in their four or five-year playing careers.
The five-game losing streak by the Illini in this in-state rivalry series is their longest in the history of the matchup which began in 1892. Harding says he’ll likely carry with him the feeling of entering that Memorial Stadium locker room knowing he’ll never have a chance to do two things. The first thing is to defeat Northwestern but the second, which may be more gut-wrenching is play another game on its home field.
“I don’t want to underestimate anybody (but) obviously we kind of did today,” Harding said. “When we got in the locker room and you saw the seniors’ faces, you could tell we really wanted that one. We’re 0-4 (against Northwestern) and we can’t ever get that back. Definitely an emptiness. I’ll never forget this season and this last game.”
These Illinois seniors, such as Harding, have experienced as many as three different head-coaching regimes. Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald has defeated each of the last four Illinois head coaches (Ron Zook, Tim Beckman, Bill Cubit and Lovie Smith) since he took over the Wildcats program in 2006.
“To be able to have an opportunity to do something that’s never happened in our program’s history before and that’s win five in a row against our rival and the way we did it today I think is a statement about the future of our program,” Fitzgerald said. “We take this rivalry very seriously, we always have and we always will. I’m a proud Carl Sandburg (High School) graduate. I’m from the state of Illinois and as long as I’m the head coach, this will be our rivalry game.”
The excuses were available for Illinois (6-6, 4-5 in Big Ten) to not come out with its best effort whether it be the nasty weather, the fact they were missing at least five starters due to injury or the fact they were a touchdown favorite for only the second time since September. Illinois decided to use every one of those excuses and more in an effort that was surprising to its fourth-year head coach.
“Disappointment doesn’t seem like a strong enough word for what we did today,” Illini coach Lovie Smith said. “Not a lot of good things happened for us today, a lot of disappointment.”
Smith and his Illini staff will now take on the recruiting trail to piece together the remaining slots of a 2020 recruiting class knowing they, once again, don’t have in-state bragging rights.
Northwestern (3-9, 1-8) scored its season-high in points and was two yards shy of its season-high in total yards in Big Ten Conference play in a regular-season finale where logic suggested they had nothing but pride to play for. Judging by Smith’s post-game comments, pride is the last thing he, his Illini staff and roster full of players will be feeling for quite some time.
“Talking about the disappointment of what happened out there today is an easy thing to do because none of us did our jobs,” Smith said. “I thought I had our football team more ready to play better football than that. Today, everything you’re going to ask me about why and whether we should’ve done this, the answer is yes, yes, yes and yes with every phase of our football program. That’s what we have to clean up.”
The Illini were physically manhandled on both lines-of-scrimmage and the rushing totals showed it in plain sight for all the announced attendance in Champaign of 35,895 to see. Northwestern, which came in just seventh in the Big Ten in rushing and down to its fourth-string quarterback at the start of the season, rushed for a season-high 378 yards on the ground. The total for the Wildcats is the program’s most since 2012 when they racked up 394 rushing yards in a 44-29 victory over Indiana. Illinois, which averaged 148.88 in conference play this season, finished with just 14 Saturday and were led by 17 yards from fifth-year senior Dre Brown’s five touches.
“It all starts up front and they dominated us on both sides of the ball today,” Smith said.
Brown, who has had a handful of surgical procedures in his five-year playing career, has an opportunity to return to Champaign for his sixth season of college football. However, Brown went through the Senior Day celebration and talked about the likelihood of ending his career on his home field with a 19-point blowout loss.
“Obviously going to a bowl game is great and all that, but in my senior year we didn’t come here to go 6-6,” Brown said. “Maybe for media, we might have met expectations but as for us in the locker room, I don’t think we met expectations.”
Smith, who like his senior players has yet to topple Fitzgerald and the Wildcats program in his four years in Champaign barely attempted to use the bowl eligibility for the program as a beacon of positivity on a day where nothing seemed to go right throughout the 60-minute contest.
“When you have a game like this, you just don’t want it to finish the season out with this type of a bad taste in your mouth,” Smith said. “Hopefully, we can get back to playing like we had throughout the year. Today wasn’t our best version of how we played today.”