CHICAGO — Justin Jackson stormed into Solider Field's south end zone, took a celebratory leap in the air and handed the ball to the back judge. The score gave Northwestern a 21-7 lead over Illinois with 11:41 left in the second quarter. Northwestern, it appeared, was on its way to a rout.
Jackson's touchdown was the Wildcats' third score in nearly 10 minutes of game time, and third in three straight possessions. Clayton Thorson seemed on his way to a season-best game, shredding the Illinois secondary with a 48-yard pass to Austin Carr in the first quarter and a 39-yard toss to Miles Shuler in the second.
Things were looking up for Northwestern, who was looking for its first 10-win regular season since the 1995-96 Rose Bowl team. With a New Year's Six Bowl berth still loosely in play if the Wildcats notched a blowout, optimism was high.
"I think we should have done that the whole game," Thorson said. "It was definitely good to start the game that way."
But an offense that racked up 204 first-half yards stalled throughout the third and fourth quarters, with two three-and-outs, a fumble by Solomon Vault and a Thorson interception returned 58 yards for a touchdown by Illinois' Mason Monheim, who scored on a pick-six in Illinois' win in Evanston last year too.
Heading into the fourth quarter, Northwestern had lost its momentum and the game seemed to be slipping out of hand — a second-straight heartbreaking loss to Illinois seeming possible.
"You could definitely feel momentum shift," NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We had to put a couple drives together, which we sort of did. Our defense had to go out and make a big stop."
As has been the case nearly all season long, a strong fourth-quarter running game and defense carried the Wildcats to victory. Northwestern's defense kept Illinois out of the end zone after an opening-drive touchdown for the Illini in the first quarter, with Matt Harris' interception of Wes Lunt in the red zone with 9:49 left decisive.
"Obviously our defense is pretty special," Fitzgerald said after the game.
Jackson and Warren Long combined for 52 rushing yards on the first drive of the fourth quarter, resulting in a Jack Mitchell field goal, and the team churned out 97 yards on the ground during the final quarter to seal the victory. Jackson rushed for 172 yards and a touchdown on a career-high 37 carries.
"It seems like every game he just gets stronger and stronger," Fitzgerald said. "As the season goes on, he gets tougher and tougher. It's impressive to watch from a true sophomore."
Not only does the Land of Lincoln Trophy return to Evanston, but Northwestern secured its first 10-win regular season in 20 years, making an Outback Bowl appearance — or better — all the more likely.
Also, the team's seniors are now the first class in school history with two 10-win seasons.
"We've been through it all," senior superback Dan Vitale said of the senior class. "We've been through great seasons and we've been through two not-so-good seasons... But we were able to do something incredible this season.
"I think it puts us back on the map, and obviously we want to keep that going the next few years, even though I won't be here anymore. Now, we want to get that 11th win and do something that's never been done before here."
As Fitzgerald led his team arm-in-arm from midfield back to the Northwestern sideline to claim the Hat, the Wildcats shook off some of their demons after a crushing 47-33 loss to Illinois last year.
"Last year, I felt that I really failed the team," Fitzgerald said of last year''s loss. "It was my fault as the leader of the program ... This year was different."
With the victory, Northwestern is back into the New Year's Six Bowl conversation. They'll need help, but it's certainly not out of the question. Fitzgerald heavily criticized the College Football Playoff committee after the game, complaining about Stanford's placement. The Wildcats, despite beating the Cardinal 16-6 in Week 1, were ranked seven spots below their Week 1 victims in last week's rankings.
"Look at the resume," Fitzgerald said. "Our guys have the highest graduation rate in the country, if that means anything. We won the games and that puts us in a position to be in the conversation. I feel like the guys are getting disrespected. We let two get away and that's our fault, but I'm tired hearing about five wins two years in a row and I'm tired of hearing that game [against Stanford] was at 9. I'm tired of it for the kids."
The win caps off an undefeated November for Northwestern, with wins over Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin and now Illinois.
"We're a Chicago football team," Fitzgerald said. "Four yards and a cloud of dust. People think it's boring but I don't care. I'd love to put up the Baylor numbers, but they can't shake a stick at our defense."