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Illini are still playing for a lot in regular-season finale

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Winning the Land of Lincoln Trophy for the first time since 2014 — and sending its seniors out with a victory in their last game at Memorial Stadium — isn’t the only goal for Illinois on Saturday against Northwestern.

Strange as it sounds, the Illini could still be playing for a spot in a bowl game.

Although Illinois comes in with a 4-7 record, there is a chance beating Northwestern (3-8) sends the Illini bowling. If there aren’t enough .500 teams for the 82 available bowl spots, teams with 5-7 records can be considered. And it wouldn’t take long for Illinois coach Bret Bielema to accept an invitation.

“Anything we can do to give us a chance to practice, I’m all for it,” said Bielema. “I just think it’s invaluable. The only way to get good at football is to play football. During our bye weeks some of the things you’ve seen, and the progression we’ve made during the year, is through practice. To be able to do that again would be a no-brainer.”

Bielema will make his return to the sidelines. He was in isolation for 10 days after testing positive for COVID-19 and missed last week’s 33-23 loss at Iowa.

There already are 72 teams in the country with at least six wins and bowl eligibility. Heading into this week, 19 other teams sat at 5-6 and trying to get their sixth win, but eight of those play each other. That includes Maryland at Rutgers in the Big Ten.

Jerry Palm of cbssports.com projects Illinois to face Toledo in the Quick Lane Bowl, on Dec. 27 in Detroit.

While Bielema would embrace the opportunity to get 15 more practices, he hasn’t talked about the bowl possibility with his team this week either in Zoom meetings or when he came out of isolation Thanksgiving Day.

“The way we’ve progressed this year is the job at hand because it’s the next opportunity,” he said. “This week is a trophy game, a trophy we haven’t seen in six-plus years, a trophy that’s not in our building and our guys haven’t touched.”

There’s also the emotions involved on Senior Day.

Illinois leads the nation with 21 “super” seniors who returned for an extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA because of the pandemic last year. Illinois has 20 other seniors with many going through the ceremony before Saturday’s game in case they don’t come back in 2022.

Bielema said in his experience as a coach at Wisconsin and Arkansas, every player reacts differently to Senior Day.

“I remember my first Senior Day as a head coach (at Wisconsin). The last guy to walk across the line was Joe Thomas, who was my starting left tackle and the Outland Trophy winner and a very good player,” Bielema said. “He was crying his eyes out. I got on the staff and said, ‘Fellas, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but Joe Thomas is worked up. I don’t know if it’s good or bad.’ It ended up being very, very good.”

Illinois sophomore tailback Chase Brown has a chance to reach the 1,000-yard rushing mark. Brown comes in with 893 yards after being held to 42 yards at Iowa.

Northwestern’s Evan Hull also is chasing 1,000 rushing yards. Hull needs 92 yards to reach the milestone.

The Wildcats, who won the West Division title last year and played in the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State, have lost its last five games.

Even though Northwestern won’t be going to a bowl game, the Wildcats have their own incentive.

“It’s always great to win your last game. You send your seniors out the right way and it’s a springboard into the offseason,” said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. “It’s always great to have that final taste in your mouth.”

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