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Wrigleyville Classic: Northwestern Wildcats, Illinois Fighting Illini Both Have Strong Motivations Saturday

In 1923, Northwestern faced Illinois at Wrigley Field and defeated the Illini 29-0. It's the last time the Wildcats faced the Fighting Illini at the home of the Cubs -- before the park even had an upper deck.

It's not just that which will be different for the players on Saturday. The Big Ten, after signing off on the field design, surprised everyone on Friday by announcing that all offensive plays will be run toward the west end zone. Critics complain that it's not "real football", but the players will certainly be playing just as hard even with all their plays facing west. Ticket buyers on the east side of the field, some of whom paid a face value of $150, have a right to be upset.

Nevertheless, there will be a party and bowl game atmosphere around Wrigleyville all day Saturday. For the Wildcats and Illini once they reach the field for the 2:30 p.m. kickoff, it'll be all business. The two teams have played each other for more than a century -- Illinois leads the all-time series 52-46-5 -- but lately this game has been all purple. Except for Illinois' stunning 2007 season, the Wildcats have won every meeting in the last seven years. Since Pat Fitzgerald started at Northwestern as a player, the 'Cats are 10-5 over the Illini. That's a far cry from the 1971-85 period when Illinois dominated the series, winning 12 and losing only two... the 15th of those games was a 0-0 tie in 1978, a game thought by some to be the worst college football game ever played.

That was the final tie game of the series; with overtime rules there can be no more ties in college football (just ask the Illini about that after their excruciating 67-65 loss to Michigan two weeks ago).

SB Nation Chicago contributing editor Hilary Lee, our Big Ten expert, takes over the rest of this post with her game preview:

Northwestern and Illinois come into this game with the same thing on their minds: a bowl game. For Northwestern, already bowl eligible at seven wins, thoughts are directed at picking up an eighth or ninth victory in order to climb the Big Ten pecking order and avoid the designation of a "rebuilding year." For Illinois, it's all about actually getting to a bowl game -- something that has become far less of a certainty since the Illini's upswing stalled in losses to Michigan and Minnesota.

By all accounts, Illinois needs this game more... since a victory to end the season against a six-win Fresno State team on the road next weekend is anything but a certainty. That motivation will be what will carry them over the top, according to some observers. On the other side, the players on Northwestern's side will be motivated to win one for injured leader Dan Persa, whose ruptured his Achilles tendon after throwing the winning touchdown pass against Iowa last weekend. Both teams will be led by redshirt freshman quarterbacks, though Illinois' QB Nathan Scheelhaase has the benefit of having started in ten more games than Northwestern's Evan Watkins.

Still... Dan Persa's injury has thrown the actual dynamics of this game into chaos. Evan Watkins, the new Northwestern quarterback, is everything that Persa isn't -- a tall, large, pocket passer with a powerful arm. In fact, Scheelhaase resembles Persa more than Watkins does. Further complicating matters is the Illini defense. After giving up just 134 points in their first eight games, the Illini defense has mysteriously disappeared -- giving up 105 points in just their last two against Michigan and Minnesota. Though the narrow Michigan loss put up more eye-popping numbers, the Minnesota game might be what to look at if you want a preview of this afternoon's game. Minnesota's Adam Weber and Evan Watkins are a similar type of quarterback, and the Illini defensive front wasn't getting much pressure at all on Weber in that game; he responded by putting up 225 yards and two touchdowns. If Illinois lets Watkins have that kind of time to throw as well, it won't matter if he's inexperienced or new. Give any pocket passer that much time and he'll make something of it.

On the orange and blue side of the ball, success on Saturday will come down to whether Mikel Leshoure can make something of his time with the ball. Northwestern has been uneven against the running game this year -- largely shutting down Michigan State's attack for three quarters, while being absolutely gashed by Iowa's Adam Robinson during one. It's anyone's guess as to which Wildcat team will show up.

Despite all of the murkiness, I'm going to go with recent history in predicting this game. The team with the better record heading into the game has won 11 years in a row now, and I don't like messing with history. Since Northwestern owns the better record, I'm picking them. 'Cats over Illini, let's say.... 31-20.

Stay with SB Nation Chicago for in-game updates from Joe Kutsunis.