Jeremy Werner

Five storylines to watch for the Illini's 2016 finale at Northwestern

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner breaks down his five storylines to watch heading into Saturday's Illini football 2016 season finale at Northwestern

1. Season-changing win?

How do we categorize this 2016 Illinois football season?

It doesn’t seem quite as disastrous as 2012, Tim Beckman’s first season, when Illinois (2-10) lost its final 10 games against FBS opponents by an average of 24.6 points.

Does it seem as hopeless as 2005, Ron Zook’s first season, when Illinois (2-10) lost its final 10 games by an average of 27.2 points per game?

These Illini (3-8, 2-5 Big Ten) have won one more game than those two previous “first” seasons for Illini head coaches. But Lovie Smith's first Illini team is almost as uncompetitive in losses, losing eight games by an average of 24.5 points. Like 2012, Illinois lost this season to Purdue by a field goal.

Yet, this season doesn’t seem to be as big of a disappointment as 2009 when a loaded Illini roster went 3-9. This group has some talent but not nearly as much depth and a ton of injury issues. Nor is it as disappointing as Ron Turner’s final two seasons (2003 and 2004), when Illinois went a combined 4-19 just two and three years removed from a Big Ten championship and Sugar Bowl appearance.

But if Illinois loses Saturday at Northwestern, especially if it’s uncompetitive, this will align mostly with 2005. The 2012 season suggested incompetency from the staff. This one hasn’t, though it certainly offered most a dose of reality. Like 2005, this simply feels like a new coach who doesn’t have enough talent. And to be honest, the coaching change likely hurt this team’s chances at success. This offense was recruited for Bill Cubit, and Cubit may have had a bit more success with it (though marginal). But the hiring of Lovie Smith unquestionably put Illinois on much better footing long-term. This season just was part of the collateral damage of his late addition. He’s coaching players, only one of which he recruited (grad transfer Hardy Nickerson), who don’t fit what he wants to do.

Still, pulling off a win Saturday at Northwestern (11 a.m. on BTN), could give the Illini some good vibes heading into the offseason and possibly change the narrative of this season from a "lost season" to a "building season." Three Big Ten wins (something Illinois has done just once during the previous five seasons) would be a solid start to the Lovie Smith era.

“(A win Saturday) would do quite a bit,” Smith said. “Just for morale, of course. Then we talk a lot about finishing. You remember the last thing you do. Simple as that. This is the taste we’ll have in our mouths for awhile. We want to transition right into recruiting the right way on a high.”

2. Playing spoiler

Lovie Smith embraces rivalries. In his opening press conference as Bears head coach, he stoked the flames of the Bears-Packers rivalry by saying that his No. 1 goal was to beat Green Bay.

Since arriving at Illinois, Smith has tried to fan whatever embers are burning between a small Northwestern fan base and an apathetic Illinois fan base, calling Northwestern “that school up north” and calling Illinois “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” -- a dig at Northwestern’s marketing slogan.

But Smith hasn’t gone to the lengths of Beckman, who posted in the locker room a Wildcat logo with a “no” sign over it and made injured players wear purple jerseys during practice.

Smith wants to beat Northwestern, but he respects Northwestern.

“I wrote quite a few checks to the university with one of my sons graduating from there,” Smith said. “Pat Fitzgerald is a great man. Good man. Great football coach. I watched them closely on how they ran their program, what kind of guys came out of their program. We’re pretty familiar with everything surrounding it.”

Illinois leads the all-time series 55-49-5, but Northwestern has won nine of the last 13 games between the in-state rivals.

Illinois has been eliminated from bowl contention for the fourth time in five seasons. So now, Illinois will try to play spoiler and keep Northwestern (5-6, 4-4 Big Ten) at home during the postseason for the third time in four years.

Yet, Smith and players say playing for the Land of Lincoln trophy (Illinois is 3-4 against Northwestern since the hat trophy replaced the 62-year-old Tomahawk Trophy in 2009) is enough motivation.

“You don’t need any of that when you’re playing your rival,” Smith said. “No matter what level of ball, there’s someone you need to beat, that you’d love to beat. You don’t need anything else to pump you up for it except for that. I do know they need another game to be bowl eligible, but for us, it’s about getting your fourth win. Normally, you wouldn’t be so pumped up about getting that fourth win. We won’t be in this situation very often, but right now we are pretty pumped up about getting that fourth win. To get it against them and to bring that trophy back home would mean an awful lot.”

Said senior center Joe Spencer: “I don’t think you need any more motivation for this week. I hope no one does because I definitely don’t going up against Northwestern. The records are what the records are and I know both teams want this win really badly. Going into the offseason, it’s huge for either program, but I don’t think we need any more motivation. Get that hat home and take care of business up in Chicago.”

3. McGee and McGarigle return to Northwestern

The late Randy Walker recruited both Garrick McGee and Tim McGarigle, the former as a coach and the latter as a player. Both made huge impacts with McGarigle leaving the program as the FBS all-time career tackles leader and McGee stepped in as the offensive playcaller following Walker’s sudden death before the 2006 season. Below, McGee -- now the Illini offensive coordinator - discusses the impact of his time at Northwestern, while McGarigle -- the Illini linebackers coach -- discusses what it’s like to return to play his alma mater. Good stuff from both guys. Give them a watch.

4. In-state recruiting battles

So is Northwestern really “Chicago’s Big Ten Team,” or is it “Our State, Our Team” as Illinois boasts?

Illinois currently has 29 players from Illinois on its roster, while Northwestern has 22. Illinois started eight players last week who are Illinois natives. Northwestern currently has seven starters from the state of Illinois.

Both teams are led by state of Illinois quarterbacks, Northwestern by Wheaton North’s Clayton Thorson and Illinois by Rochester’s Wes Lunt. Both teams' starting running backs hail from the Land of Lincoln: Glenbard North’s Justin Jackson stars for the Wildcats, while Peoria Richwoods’ Kendrick Foster has emerged for Illinois. In-state receivers have made a big impact on both teams, Spingfield Sacred Heart Griffin’s Malik Turner for Illinois and Lemont’s Flynn Nagel for Northwestern.

Fitzgerald’s relatively great run at Northwestern and the stability he’s provided has allowed the Wildcats to at least equal Illinois recently at in-state recruiting. One could even argue they’ve done a better job at in-state recruiting.

The Wildcats landed Jackson -- the first player in program history to rush for 1,000 yards in three seasons -- over Illinois. They landed Thorson -- 2,847 yards, 20 touchdowns, eight interceptions -- over Illinois. They also beat Illinois in battles for Nagel (384 receiving yards), starting tackle Blake Hance (Jacksonille), cornerback Parrker Westphal (Bolingbrook), offensive lineman Adam Lemke-Bell (Oak Park-River Forest), backup quarterback Matt Alviti (Maine South) and Eric Eshoo (Loyola Academy), to name a few.

But Smith’s staff could nudge Illinois back ahead in the in-state battles. Illinois currently has six commitments from in-state recruits. Northwestern has just two in-state commitments, but both rank in the top 15 of the Scout’s state of Illinois rankings.

Illinois has a lot of steps to take to improve its program and recruiting. Beating its rival for more in-state and Chicagoland recruits would be a solid first step.

“We’re both in the same state recruiting the same area,” McGarigle said. “So I’m sure in the Midwest we’re going to have some battles going after the same type of players. This is a huge game in terms of the city of Chicago and the recruits and moving forward in those players you want to build your program with.”

5. Last chance for recruiting momentum?

Illinois won’t be able to sell a successful season to recruits this offseason. But another win over a recruiting and on-field rival certainly wouldn’t hurt. But for the program's future, what happens after Saturday is much more important than what happens on Saturday.

Whether a subpar season will hurt Illinois on the recruiting trail -- which the Illini staff will hit hard starting Sunday -- remains to be seen. Smith said his staff is still selling opportunity and its vision.

“I think people are going to look the entire season and the body of work, but you look the direction of the program too,” Smith said. “That’s what we’re selling, the direction of our program. It’s our first year. Of course your first year you’d like to win every game, but most of the time that doesn’t happen. Now where we are, it is about our future. You have to look at our future and whether you believe we’re heading in the right direction and you want to be a part of us and winning in the future. I think a lot of guys, a lot of prospects will see themselves being a part of our program going forward, starting with the guys in the Chicago area.”

After arriving in March, the Illini staff got a really late start to the Class of 2017. But the Illini have a solid foundation, especially on offense, highlighted by commitments from four-star Chicago Brother Rice Ricky Smalling and three-star St. Louis Trinity Catholic offensive lineman Larry Boyd -- both should make immediate impacts.

But the Illini have a lot of work to do (14 available scholarships) with just 75 days left before Signing Day. The focus is on getting faster, bigger, longer and stronger.

While the Illini assistants hit the road hard during the spring and summer, the Illini finally get to release their best weapon on the trail next week: Lovie.

NCAA rules prohibiting head coaches from recruiting off campus during the spring and summer (besides satellite camps) especially hurt Illinois since Smith wasn’t on the trail during the winter for Illinois. Next week, he will head to Chicago and St. Louis to spearhead the Illini’s efforts for top targets in the Illini’s top recruiting areas.ill

“We have a bona fide closer,” McGee said.

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