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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern 37, Illinois 34

What happened:

After weeks of ineffectiveness, Northwestern’s offense was rolling on its first two drives against the 110th-ranked defense in the country. The Wildcats drove down the field behind a big run from Mike Trumpy on the sideline and a great rush by quarterback Trevor Siemian down the middle to get into the red zone. However, NU’s red zone woes continued with two stuffed runs and a penalty for an ineligible receiver, forcing the Cats to kick the field goal on the first drive.

They made up for it on the second drive with help from Christian Jones, who had a monster day. He made a stellar one-handed grab for the touchdown—NU’s first in regulation since the first half against Nebraska three weeks ago.

NU’s defense held strong on Illinois’ first two drives but the Illini broke through for a touchdown to start the second quarter, cutting the lead to three. Receiver Steven Hull made a great/lucky catch while lying on the ground in the endzone.

Illinois struck again just over two minutes later to take its first lead of the game, but NU answered with a touchdown of its own from Siemian to Dan Vitale on a crossing route in the red zone.

The Cats had an opportunity to steal some major momentum when Collin Ellis nearly intercepted a pass, but he couldn’t hang on and instead the Illini went for a 51-yard field goal, which Taylor Zalewski nailed despite kicking into the wind.

Near the end of the first half, NU drove down the field into the red zone and appeared to be attempting yet another field goal, but coach Pat Fitzgerald instead called for the fake field goal. Holder Brandon Williams threw the ball short of the end zone and the Cats walked away empty. However, the defense held Illinois to a three-and-out and, after a 22 yard punt return by Tony Jones, NU got the ball at the Illinois 31 yard line with 32 second left. Siemian completed a pass to Rashad Lawrence for 22 yards and Jeff Budzien hit the field goal as time expired for the 20-17 halftime lead.

Less than 30 seconds after the start of the second half, Illinois running back Josh Ferguson broke a 55-yard run for a touchdown to regain the lead for the Illini.

The two teams kicked a field goal on their next drives, then punted to end the third quarter.

Just after the start of the fourth quarter, Siemian completed a 23 yard pass to Rashad Lawrence for a touchdown and the lead, the fourth lead change of the game.

With Illinois driving down the field, defensive lineman Tyler Scott grabbed an attempted throw-away pass on the sideline and stayed in bounds just long enough to get the interception. NU converted the turnover into a touchdown—an incredible catch by Christian Jones as he was falling out of the left side of the end zone.

Two drives later, Illinois closed the gap to three with a touchdown but it was too little, too late as Northwestern was able to run out the clock with a timely 11 yard rush from Treyvon Green. The LOL Hat stays in Evanston for another year.

What went right:

-Trevor Siemian made a good case for NU fans not to give up on him yet. The quarterback system will be vastly different with Kain Colter gone but Siemian has the ability to run an effective offense. Granted, this was against the 110th-ranked defense in the country, but he did what he needed to do, protected the ball, and threw some pretty passes over the heads of the defense. He had 414 yards and four touchdowns on the day and, possibly most importantly, no interceptions.

-Northwestern is lucky Christian Jones is only a junior. It’s unfortunate that his truly breakout game came in the last match of the year, but he’s had stretches of greatness all season and looks poised to have a stellar senior campaign. He had 13 catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns, including an incredible catch as he was falling out of bounds in the fourth quarter, giving NU a two-score lead. It’s hard to overstate how big of a game he had.

-Northwestern finally turned some of those “missed opportunities” from previous weeks into a takeaway. After a near-interception by Collin Ellis in the second quarter, Tyler Scott ended NU’s three-game drought with a pick in the fourth. It was a huge momentum shift and led to the NU touchdown that ultimately sealed the game.

-Ultimately this game didn’t mean much—it won’t make the Cats bowl eligible—but one Big Ten win sounds infinitely better than zero Big Ten wins. It sent the seniors out the right way and gave NU a little bit of positive momentum, no matter how small, heading into the offseason.

What went wrong:

-NU can’t seem to get its offense and defense to play well on the same day. The defense has been the strength the past few weeks while the offense struggled, but today when the offense found some momentum against a poor Illinois defense, NU’s own defense started giving up the big plays that plagued them earlier this year.

-What in the world was that fake field goal attempt? Most likely an excuse for Fitzgerald to never call another trick play again.