Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

November 21, 2018 at 1:28 am.

Illinois hopes to end with an upset

Illinois limps into its season finale at Northwestern, the champion of the Big Ten West, this Saturday.

The Illini (4-7, 2-6 Big Ten) are coming off a 63-0 home loss to Iowa on Senior Day, the most disheartening result of head coach Lovie Smith’s third season in Champaign. Illinois turned the ball over four times and allowed a punt return touchdown.

The 63-point margin of defeat was tied for the worst lost in program history, joining a 63-0 loss in 1906 to the University of Chicago.

“It seemed like this year there has been some tough losses,” Smith said. “There are some scars that will stay with you. I didn’t really see this coming.”

The season ends with another tough opponent as Northwestern (7-4, 7-1 Big Ten) has won six of its past seven games, losing only to Notre Dame in that stretch. The Wildcats are coming off a 24-14 victory at Minnesota.

“Their team has had an outstanding year,” Smith said, “but hopefully for us that puts us in a good position after disappointment you can finish the season up the right way beating your rival.”

Smith is 9-26 in his third season at Illinois, and this four-win season marks the best victory total of his time in Champaign. He has a 4-22 record in Big Ten play.

While there is plenty of speculation about whether he should be retained, a key factor could be that he still has three years left on his initial six-year contract, so the buyout is significant. If Smith were to coach in 2019 in one more chance to show progress, the buyout would drop to $8 million.

Illinois has some young talent — true freshmen have started 30 games this season, a year after true freshmen started a program-record 86 games. The quarterback for the finale likely will be A.J. Bush, who was one of only nine seniors recognized before last Saturday’s game.

Bush has been up and down this season after joining the team as a grad transfer from Virginia Tech. He has had multiple 100-yard rushing games, including a school record for a quarterback with 187 rushing yards at Nebraska. His backup is true freshman M.J. Rivers, who has three starts and figures to be the future at the position for the Illini.

This game is for the Land of Lincoln Trophy, which was first awarded in 2009, even though the first meeting dates to 1894. Northwestern is 6-3 in the trophy games and has won three in a row. The Land of Lincoln trophy replaced the “Sweet Sioux” Tomahawk, which was awarded from 1947-2008 in this state rivalry.