CHAMPAIGN — Tim Banks, who runs the University of Illinois football defense, loves his senior starters.
He just wishes he had more than two of them.
Banks will say farewell to linebacker Jonathan Brown and end Tim Kynard today when Illinois wraps up its season against in-state rival Northwestern at Memorial Stadium. At stake is the Land of Lincoln trophy, a made-for-today piece of hardware renamed two years ago when it was determined the long-standing Sweet Sioux Tomahawk was politically inappropriate.
Instead of a hatchet, a replica of Abe Lincoln’s top hat will go to the winner, but more than that is on the line today, including what Banks hopes can be a victorious sendoff from a defensive unit that has struggled with inexperience.
At one time this season, the university submitted a graphic showing 33 names on the 11-player defensive depth chart. The good news for the future is that 31 of those players are in line to return next season.
The bad news is that college football values its seniors and only two of them have been available to Banks this year.
Still, he’s thankful for their play and their leadership.
“The season hasn’t quite gone the way we wanted it to go and the two seniors we have could easily have become a distraction and been sulking,” Banks said. “But they’ve been a positive and tried to lead the young guys and tell them the future is bright and continue to work hard.”
There will be an on-field ceremony to say goodbye to 15 Illini seniors, most on offense or special teams.
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But Brown, Illinois’ highest-rated player coming into the season, has had another fine year. He ranks second in the Big Ten and 33rd nationally in tackles (9.3 per game).
Kynard has come on strong nearing the end of the season, finally helping the Illini muster the semblance of a pass rush.
“Tim has played well down the stretch,” Banks said. “He’s had some really good games lately and we told him we need one more from him.”
While each team arrives with just four wins, the Wildcats are the team whose season took a bizarre turn after a hot start.
Northwestern was 4-0 and ranked 16th in the country heading into the month of October. But a home loss to Ohio State triggered a seven-game losing streak that Northwestern brings to Champaign today.
Injuries and tough luck have marked the plunge.
Venric Mark, the Wildcats’ leading rusher, lasted just three games before injuries derailed his season. The better of the team’s two quarterbacks – Kain Colter – has been hurt more than once and is “iffy” today with a shoulder injury that knocked him out of last week’s loss to Michigan State.
If Colter can’t play, the job goes to Trevor Siemian, whose passing production has been less than the Wildcats hoped for.
Illinois would like nothing better than to send Northwestern home winless in the Big Ten, a modest payback for a painful finale to the 2012 season. In that game at Evanston, Northwestern turned it on in the second half and ended Illinois’ 2-12 season with a 50-14 wipeout.
“Yeah, we remember that one,” Kynard said.