When one looks at Michigan”s schedule, a few games pop off the page. There”s Michigan State, always a huge in-state rivalry. There”s Penn State, a matchup between two legendary college football programs, even if one has recently fallen on hard times. And there”s Ohio State, year-in, year-out the most anticipated matchup in the Big Ten.
Of course, all of Michigan”s games are special. On the schedules of its Big Ten opponents, the Michigan date is often circled as a defining game of the season.
Still, generally speaking, the Illinois game rarely stands in the same light as those marquee games listed above.
But for a few Wolverines, facing the Illini can be the bread and butter of the season.
“The last few seasons have made for a great rivalry,” senior cornerback Todd Howard said. Howard, a native of Bolingbrook, Ill. is one of four Michigan regulars that hail from the Prairie State.
Two of the others, center Kurt Anderson and offensive lineman Tony Pape, also spoke of the excitement that comes with playing against their home-state school.
“It”s our Michigan State game and it”s really big for me,” Anderson said. His brother, Erick, was an All-America linebacker for the Wolverines in 1991.
“Growing up before Erick came here, the Michigan game was always a big game. It was evident because I had one neighbor that played at Michigan and one at Illinois so it was a big week.”
Part of what makes the game so big for the Illinois natives is the fact that they chose to leave the state, rather than play in Champaign.
“When decision time came, Illinois was a school that I thought about,” said Pape, a Clarendon Hills native. “Michigan just had more to offer me and it was the same distance from home. I had too many friends going to Illinois so I wanted to go somewhere new and meet new people and find a new experience.”
Anderson spoke of a similar rationale.
“Obviously,” he said, “Erick came here and his advice was to go where you felt the most comfortable with the coaching staff and I felt Michigan was the place for me. Nothing against Illinois, but Michigan was where my heart was.”
The last two times that Michigan faced the Illini were epic battles. In 1999, Michigan blew a 27-7 lead late in the third quarter and lost 35-29. Last year, Illinois was controlling the game until quarterback Drew Henson entered the game his first appearance of the season, already three games old and rallied the Wolverines to a 35-31 win.
So for seniors Anderson and Howard, the game has added importance. This is the third time they”ll face Illinois the teams didn”t meet in 1998 and with their record against the Illini standing at 1-1, the two players are hoping to prove that they made the right choice.
“Every game is a big game in the Big Ten,” Anderson said, “but there is something special about Illinois. Being from Illinois, it”s always going to be a big game for me.”
As with almost every team in the Big Ten, Illinois fans have an ingrained hatred for the Wolverines, a point that makes winning even more important for the players from Illinois.
“All the Illinois people I know like me,” Howard joked, but added, “I know we have some Illinois people on our side. You go there and they yell out “You should have come here.” It makes for a great rivalry and it makes it fun to play.”