Land of Lincoln rivalry holds respect, venom

The in-state rivalry between Northwestern and Illinois has taken new form ever since Tim Beckman entered as the Fighting Illini's head coach. While the two schools have a respect for each other, bad blood is ever present.

The Land of Lincoln Trophy will be at stake in 120 days when the Fighting Illini travel to Evanston. That is marked on a countdown clock inside the Illinois football facility.

On Friday morning in Chicago, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald and players were separated by a mere hundred feet from first-year Fighting Illini head coach Tim Beckman and three of his players, all meeting with the press at Big Ten Media Days.

A natural bad blood exists between the two schools, and that has especially the case since Beckman took the helm as Illinois' head coach. However, there is a mutual respect between the two head coaches and each of their players.

"That's what college football is all about, the rivalries," Beckman said.

Both Beckman and Fitzgerald have played a part in stirring the pot. He posted anti-Northwestern signs scattered through the Illinois football facility. Fitzgerald has referred to the Fighting Illini as 'that school down in Champaign' each chance he gets.

Beckman made it clear to the Illinois team that the rivalry with the Wildcats is something significant, and his players have embraced it.

"I think it's healthy, I think it's good for us as players and for the fans," said Illinois junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. "It's something that has excited not only our program, but both programs in a better way."

Tension began to take a personal level when Northwestern trademarked itself as "Chicago's Big Ten team" prior to the 2010 season.

When the two teams met later that season in Wrigley Field, the Fighting Illini took out their aggression against the Wildcats in the form of a 48-27 win. Upon leaving the field, Illinois defensive end Martez Wilson, a Chicago native, declared his Illini team was Chicago's Big Ten team.

"We have a lot of guys from Chicago on our team," said Illinois senior center Graham Pocic, a native of nearby Lemont. "We didn't like that too much."

The Land of Lincoln rivalry holds personal meaning for the two head coaches, each whom have made Illinois a key battleground state for recruiting. Both Fitzgerald and Beckman wrestled for four-star quarterbacks Matthew Alviti and Aaron Bailey. In the end, Alviti landed with Northwestern; Bailey would pick the Fighting Illini.

Many more recruiting battles loom for each school. As for the annual matchup on the field, Fitzgerald isn't focused on that just yet.

"We put that in a drawer and pull that open when it's appropriate," said Northwestern's seventh-year coach.

With the Wildcats and Illini meeting on Nov. 24 -- each team's last regular season game -- Beckman admits he'll be rooting for Northwestern till that point.

"I want (Northwestern) to win every game except one, I do," Beckman said. "That's what rivalries are all about; win them all except one. That just makes our game even better. I love it. That's what college football is all about."

Kain Colter, Northwestern's new full-time starting quarterback, admitted he believes the rivalry does hold true importance.

"We definitely feel that rivarly; it's an in-state rivalry," said Colter. "You're playing for the Land of Lincoln Trophy. You definitely want to get that win, maybe more than other games."

In Champaign, the countdown is on as the Fighting Illini aim to take the trophy and bragging rights over Northwestern for the third straight season.

"Being at Illinois, we're expected to beat Northwestern every single season," said Pocic. "It's definitely marked down on the calander."

Chris Emma has covered recruiting, college athletics and professional baseball for FOX Sports Next since 2009. Emma covered the Nebraska Cornhuskers for Big Red Report, and currently covers the Northwestern Wildcats and Chicago Cubs. He currently resides on Chicago's north side.
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