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Northwestern-Illinois final score: Northwestern earns 10th win and HAT

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO -- It was the biggest play of the game: 4th-and-1 for Illinois on Northwestern's 4-yard-line down 10 with just over four-and-a-half minutes left in the game. Illini quarterback Wes Lunt went under center, barking out signals to his offensive line. One of them jumped early, pushing Illinois back five yards. So head coach Bill Cubit -- who was just extended for two years leading up to the game -- decided to kick the short field goal and Taylor Zalewski pushed it wide right and Northwestern stayed on top 24-14.

Just like that, the Hat was won and Northwestern won its 10th game of the season over its in-state rival.

Illinois got on the board first with a touchdown on its initial drive, but after that it was all Northwestern. The Wildcats scored unanswered touchdowns on three-straight drives before halftime to go up 21-7 at the break.

Following the Illinois touchdown, Clayton Thorson found Austin Carr on a 48-yard pass, setting up a 19-yard touchdown reception by Dan Vitale. The score was the senior's fourth of the season.

vitale td ill

On the ensuing drive, the Wildcats were helped out by a "leaping over the punting shield" personal foul, which resulted in a 15-yard penalty and automatic first down on a 4th-and-11. Running back Warren Long finished off the 12-play, 57-yard drive with a 3-yard score, his fifth of the year.

long td ill

Next, it was Justin Jackson's turn. The sophomore bounded into end zone putting Northwestern up 21-7 early in the second quarter. Jackson's fourth score of the year finished up a tidy eight-play, 75-yard drive.

jj td ill

While the offense took care of business in the first half, the defense dominated Illinois throughout the contest. Wes Lunt and co. failed to move the ball efficiently at any point during the first two quarters, other than their first drive. In the second half, the Illini managed to move the ball inside Northwestern territory on a couple occasions: one of which resulted in an interception and the other in a missed field goal.

Through the vast majority of the second quarter and into the third, the two teams traded punts and Solomon Vault lost a fumble before Illinois linebacker Mason Monheim took a Thorson pass back for a 58-yard interception return touchdown, cutting the Wildcats' lead to 21-14.

On Northwestern's next drive, though, the Wildcats used a 27-yard run from Jackson and an 18-yard scamper from Long to set up Jack Mitchell for a 39-yard field goal, pushing Northwestern's lead to 10 with a bit over 11 minutes left in the game.

Illinois looked to be driving on its next possession before Lunt missed his receiver and Matt Harris intercepted the miscue on Northwestern's own 19, squashing the Illini's chances to close in on Northwestern's lead.

But after a short possession, the Illinois missed field goal pretty much sealed the game in Northwestern's favor.

10 WINS?!

Yes, Northwestern has won 10 games in a regular season for the first time since 1995. This team has chance, with a bowl game win, to become the first Northwestern team to reach 11 wins ever in a single season. The Wildcats will await their bowl fate until after next weekend, following the conference championship games. Right now, it looks as though Northwestern will probably miss out on a New Year's Six Bowl but will still probably be heading to Florida to play in either the Outback or Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1.

Tale of two halves

In the first half, Thorson looked to be playing his best game of the year. He was 8-14 for 133 yards and a touchdown. He was on time and on target. But in the second half, his fortunes turned. Thorson threw what could have been a costly interception and only completed four passes in the second half for 13 yards.

Justin Jackson

Jackson has been on a tear over his last four games. Since rough outings against Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska where he totaled 95 yards on the ground, the sophomore has rushed for 612 yards in his last four games, including 171 against the Illini.