Nov. 15, 2004 wire reports

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern goes into its annual game against in-state rival Illinois after a disheartening loss to Michigan and needing a victory just to qualify for a bowl game.


Sound familiar? It should.

"Ironically, we find ourselves in the same place we were in a year ago," coach Randy Walker said Monday. "I don't want to dwell on things that are in the future. But we do find ourselves, ironically, in the same place we were a year ago. Almost exactly. So OK, we've been here before. We know how to handle this."

Northwestern beat Illinois last year to even its record at 6-6 and qualify for a bowl game. This year, the Wildcats need seven wins to be bowl-eligible because they play a 12-game schedule. So at 5-5 (4-3 Big Ten), the Wildcats have to beat Illinois and Hawaii or they'll be staying home for the holidays.

Though Walker has preached the "one-game-at-a-time" mantra all season, he broke his own rule at the team meeting Sunday night. Some of his coaches had said he shouldn't even bring up a bowl game, but Walker decided to spell out the different scenarios just so his team knew exactly what was at stake.

Northwestern could win out and qualify for a bowl. It could win its last two games, finish a bowl-eligible 7-5 and not be invited anywhere.

Or the Wildcats could lose one or both of the last two games and have to watch bowl games from their couches.

"I ended with a question. I asked them: `What are we playing for?"' Walker said. "I really went into the Michigan game believing we could win the Big Ten championship. ... But we didn't. We've got to let that go. There are still a lot of things left to play for."

And the Wildcats are well aware of what they are, even without Walker's speech.

Northwestern got off to a rocky start this year, losing three of its first four games, including a 48-45 heartbreaker in double overtime at TCU. But the Wildcats turned their season around with a milestone upset of then-No. 7 Ohio State. Since then they've won three of their last five, including another upset of then-No. 17 Purdue and their first victory at Penn State.

Thanks to a quirky season, the Wildcats still had a remote chance at a share of the Big Ten title going into last weekend's game at Michigan. But Michigan pulled away in the third quarter, turning what had been a close game into a 42-20 rout.

The loss eliminated Northwestern from Big Ten contention, and made the last two games must-wins for a bowl trip.

"It was one of those things where we almost had the momentum," Noah Herron said. "It was coming to us and we really just didn't grasp it. It was unfortunate. But at the same time, when we get an opportunity like that to grab the momentum against a team like that, you've got to take it."

That's exactly what they plan to do this weekend against Illinois. The Illini are 3-7 with just one Big Ten win, but they've won two of the last three games against Northwestern and two of the last three in Evanston.

"Coach Walker reminded us that we're in the same exact situation that we were in last year," linebacker John Pickens said. "Before we can worry about a bowl game, we've got to win these next two games. It's the Illinois game. They're our rival.

"When I showed up as a freshman, I really didn't understand the rivalry game," Pickens added. "But after that first game you really realize that there's a lot of animosity between our two teams. It's a game that we're excited to play for."

And, not that they need any more reminders, a game they have to win.