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Northwestern 20, Illinois 17: halftime thoughts

At halftime of Northwestern’s final game of the season, the Wildcats lead Illinois 20-17.

-- On its first two drives, Northwestern picked apart Illinois defense and scored a combined 10 points – three on the first after Rashad Lawrence’s would-be touchdown catch was nixed due to an illegal touching penalty; seven on the second after Christian Jones snatched a Siemian pass out of the air with one hand and trotted into the end zone. Jones’ touchdown grab prompted this facial expression from Illini coach Tim Beckman.

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--  The offense stalled later in the first quarter. Northwestern gained only 28 yards on its next two drives as Illinois’ defense began to get pressure on quarterback Trevor Siemian.

-- The Wildcats’ defense played well early on, save for one Illinois drive late in the first quarter in which quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase completed six passes to move the Illini into field goal territory. Kicker Taylor Zalewski missed a 47-yarder.

-- Early in the second quarter, Illinois receiver Steve Hull made a catch that seemed emblematic of Northwestern’s bad luck during its seven-game losing streak. Coming back to the ball on an underthrown Scheelhaase pass intended for the end zone, Hull fell down and, while he lay prone on the ground, hauled in a touchdown.


(via The Champaign Room)

-- Northwestern’s offense continued to stagnate early in the second quarter. The three drives that followed Jones’ touchdown catch ended in punts. Illinois took the lead early in the quarter after Scheelhaase completed consecutive 15-yard passes to wide receiver Miles Osei and running back Josh Ferguson, followed by a 19-yard pass to Osei – a sequence capped by Ferguson’s one-yard touchdown plunge. 14-10 Illini.

-- Less than four minutes later, Northwestern regained the lead after superback Dan Vitale completed a nine-play, 65-yard drive with an 11-yard touchdown catch. Siemian went a perfect 5-of-5 for 58 yards on the drive.

-- On a play preceded by the following incredulous tweet, Illinois tied the game when Taylor “Zaboomski” Zalewski connected on a 51-yard field goal into the wind.

The reaction was a bit different after Zalewski’s make.

-- The Wildcats drove to the Illini five on their next possession, and after Siemian missed Vitale in the end zone on third down, Northwestern appeared to be settling for a field goal. Northwestern ran a horrifically-executed fake, with punter Brandon Williams throwing the ball at the ground between two Illini defenders. The silver lining? Pat Fitzgerald taking a “risk” in the red zone seemingly for the first time in over a month.

-- After forcing a three-and-out, Northwestern advanced into field goal range, thanks in part to another spectacular one-handed catch, this one from Lawrence, and Budzien connected on a 26-yarder, his second field goal of the half, to put Northwestern up 20-17 at the half.

-- Jones and Siemian played perhaps their best respected halves of football this season; Jones caught nine passes for 131 yards and Siemian completed 17-of-26 for 269.