Leshoure a big-league run producer as Illini claim title as Chicago's team
Of all the public-relations problems surrounding Saturday's 48-27 Illinois victory over Northwestern at Wrigley Field, the one that most impacted the outcome came from a marketing campaign that had nothing to do with bad planning or field dimensions.
As much as any factor in a game that wasn't as close as the score indicates, Illinois came committed to questioning truth in advertising.
"When I heard Northwestern called 'Chicago's Big Ten team' all week, yes, that bothered me," Illinois linebacker and Simeon graduate Martez Wilson said after making two sacks. "I'm from here. I also heard it said that they don't recruit the type of player Illinois does. Well, our game plan showed who was Chicago's Big Ten team, and we did a good job proving it."
Chicago's supposed Big Ten team, please stand up.
After you are done wiping Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure's cleat marks off your backs, that is.
It didn't matter what direction Leshoure ran against Northwestern. Everything tilted downhill for the Illini running back after the Big Ten hastily decided Friday both offenses would head westward because the right-field wall was too close to the east end zone.
It would be a juicier story if the Wildcats could blame the loss on a Cubbie occurrence such as a Billy Goat curse. But the truth is Illinois beat Northwestern in an uncomplicated, timeless manner that would have worked the last time they played each other on this field in 1923. The Illini gave the Wildcats an old-fashioned whipping.
"I'd look back after I carried out my fake and (Leshoure) would be going down the sideline," Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said.
After Leshoure set a school record with 330 rushing yards on 33 carries, add his name to a list with Adam Dunn and Mike Schmidt of players who ruined the day for the home team. It's not the first time the holes in the middle of the Cubs infield here were that big. But these were gaping.
Northwestern's defense was so bad I starting looking for Soriano on their roster.
"Pretty much everything we were calling, we were executing," Leshoure said.
During the extra pregame hype for this historic event, the Illini apparently noticed the building perception that Northwestern recruited a higher quality of student-athlete. That only made them more determined to create their own reality.
"I think they always make a big thing, they recruit a different kid than we do. Well, our kids are pretty smart because they executed a lot of different schemes in the running game," offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said.
Seeing Northwestern 21, Illinois 0 on the scoreboard during Friday's walk-through -- mentioned by more than one Illini player -- only added to the motivation. I can't help but wonder if all the perceived slights contributed to Ron Zook electing to score a meaningless touchdown with 36 seconds left rather than take a knee in the name of good sportsmanship.
But if it didn't bother Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald -- "Nope, not at all," Fitzgerald answered when I asked him -- it's not worth belaboring. Until next year, perhaps.
Speaking of next year, they should move this rivalry to Soldier Field in what could become an annual event for The Chicagoland Bowl. The baseball field concept that cannot continue sounded great until it dawned on Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who realized months after he should have, that the details don't make Wrigley the right venue. Delany might want to start double-checking the particulars for next season's Big Ten title game over Thanksgiving, just in case.
Having both teams on the same sideline and running plays the same direction didn't affect the outcome as much as two key sequences for each offense.
For Illinois, the turning point came on the opening series of the third quarter. Facing fourth-and-1 at the Northwestern 16, Zook called on Leshoure instead of kicking the safe field goal. He converted the gutsy call and three plays later, the Illini led 34-24.
For Northwestern, injured quarterback Dan Persa's absence was felt most on the opening series of the fourth quarter. On third-and-11 from the Illini 30, Evan Watkins lost six yards on one of Wilson's sacks instead of throwing the ball away. The lost yardage cost the Wildcats a shot at a field goal and a chance to cut the lead to seven.
Overall, I'm not sure either group of young men forced to go west looked much more impressive than a directional school. But after blowing two straight fourth-quarter leads, Zook will take it.
"We're back on the way of getting back to where we want," he said.
The win made Illinois bowl-eligible. But if this is what bowl eligibility looks like, there indeed is hope for every middling college football program looking for a partner.
"We already beat the two other Illinois teams (Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois)," Scheelhaase said. "It was a turf battle."
The state champion Illini. The slogan's all theirs.