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Posted By Ben Chiswick On Nov 17 2010 @ 11:11 am In Northwestern | 2 Comments

It’s a shame that such an exciting day for the Northwestern football program feels so bittersweet.

For many Chicago-area football fans, November 20 has been circled on the calendar for some time. One of the greatest venues in all of sports, Wrigley Field, will play host to the Northwestern Wildcats’ (7-3, 3-3) final “home” game of the season against their in-state rival, the Illinois Fighting Illini (5-5, 3-4), in the Allstate Wrigleyville Classic.

With unique sporting events increasing at the Friendly Confines – the NHL’s Blackhawks played an outdoor game there on New Year’s Day in 2009 and the ballpark has hosted minor league games featuring Chicago Cubs’ farm clubs for each of the past few years – Wrigley has been painted purple in preparation for its first football game since 1970. Even ESPN’s College GameDay crew will be setting up shop in Wrigleyville, as will the Big Ten Network’s Kickoff Show.

Can you remember the last time that a Northwestern home game was the center of the college football world?

Oh, right. Never.

At stake in the 104th meeting between the two schools will be the Land of Lincoln Trophy. For those of you scratching your heads right now, the new prize made its first appearance last season to replace the more traditional Sweet Sioux Tomahawk Trophy that fueled the rivalry from 1945-2008.

The game should be a very good one, especially since it is difficult to remember the last time that the Wildcats and the Illini were both this good. In fact, the two schools have not finished above .500 in the same season since the turn of the century. To pinpoint the last time that happened, you have to go all the way back to 1963 when Illinois went 8-1-1 and won the Rose Bowl while Northwestern ended the season at 5-4.

1963… yikes!

Depending on how the Illini finish their season, that dubious streak could be snapped for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Readers of this blog are well aware that Northwestern is bowl-eligible and has already clinched another plus-.500 season, with their signature win coming last week over then-No. 13 Iowa. While Illinois has been a little Jekyll-and-Hyde in 2010, they average better than 31 points-per-game and can be very explosive. The average margin of victory in their five wins is a whopping 24.4 points, but their five losses include an average of 35.6 points allowed-per-game. Most recently, they have suffered a pair of tough losses to Michigan (67-65 in triple overtime) and Minnesota (38-34 at home), blowing a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter to allow the Gophers just their second win last Saturday.

Unfortunately, the excitement surrounding this game for Northwestern fans is somewhat tempered by the devastating season-ending injury suffered by quarterback Dan Persa moments after throwing the game-winning touchdown pass last week against Iowa. For his efforts, Persa was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week as well as the Walter Camp Football Foundation National Offensive Player of the Week and the Rivals.com Big Ten Player of the Week. He will go down as the new Big Ten record-holder for single-season completion percentage at 73.5%, a category in which he has led all FBS passers for nearly the entire year.

For the final two regular season games and whatever bowl game Northwestern earns, Persa will be replaced by redshirt freshman Evan Watkins. The Carol Stream native will be making his first career start and brings 44 yards on 3-for-7 passing to the table.

Not exactly Steve Young to Persa’s Joe Montana.

As Watkins goes, so will the Wildcats. He stepped up and looked strong and confident in limited late-game action against Indiana, helping to secure the victory after Persa was knocked out with a concussion. At Glenbard North High School, the 6-foot-6, 240-pounder not only threw for 3,500 yards and 36 touchdowns, but also rushed for 750 yards and 15 more scores on the ground. Certainly, the coaching staff has professed their confidence in him and already considered him to be Persa’s heir apparent in 2012.

Now, the youngster will jump on the “L” at Central Street and transfer from the Purple Line to the Red Line at Howard. When he gets Addison, he’ll be in for the afternoon of a lifetime.

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