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Northwestern-Illinois Final Score: Wildcats hold on, earn bowl eligibility, keep the Land of Lincoln Trophy

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The Wildcats hold onto the HAT and guarantee themselves postseason play.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern is going bowling — and keeping the Land of Lincoln Trophy another year — after defeating its in-state rival Illinois for the second straight year.

The Wildcats (6-6, 5-4 Big Ten) racked up 278 yards on the ground and forced four Illini (3-9, 2-7 Big Ten) turnovers en route to a 42-21 victory at Ryan Field.

The game started with back-to-back-to-back punts, but Northwestern took advantage of great field position after that third punt and marched 59 yards in eight plays, a drive that culminated in John Moten IV’s first career touchdown.

The redshirt freshman wasn’t done though. On the very next drive, he took the ball on a stretch play, cut back and got to the second level before stiff-arming a defender and streaking down the sideline for a 43-yard score, putting the Wildcats up 14-0. The Wildcats were lucky to even get there, though, after Clayton Thorson was intercepted on a tipped pass to start the drive. But the play was waved off because Illinois had 12 men on the field. Six plays later, Moten IV had his second career score.

Illinois promptly went three-and-out, but Northwestern returned the favor after failing on fourth-and-short. The Wildcats got the ball back when C.J. Robbins and Trae Williams stripped Illini wideout Malik Turner and promptly went 45 yards in three plays, capped off by Justin Jackson’s diving score.

But Illinois wouldn’t go quietly, piecing together an 11-play, 78-yard drive that chewed up over five minutes. The Illini took advantage of soft coverage on the outside, picking up chunk yardage to move down the field with ease. On fourth-and-two, the Illini went with a trips formation to the right and Wes Lunt hit Malik Turner on a zig route. The visitors’ leading receiver outran Kyle Queiro to the endzone to cut the lead to 21-7.

Northwestern’s offense moved into Illini territory again but failed on fourth down for the second straight possession, this time due to a holding call. The Wildcats punted it away and similarly to its first scoring drive, Illinois used short throws and medium-depth throws before Reggie Corbin sped around the outside for an 8-yard score. The hosts led just 21-14 at half.

The Wildcats showed few signs of stemming the tide, going three-and-out to start the second half and then allowing Illinois to drive into the redzone.

Then, they made a play.

Anthony Walker stripped Corbin as the Illinois running back tried to stretch for extra yardage, and Godwin Igwebuike scooped it up and ran it back for a touchdown. The return was called back for a personal foul on Joe Gaziano, but the Wildcats had come up with a crucial stop. Shortly after, Justin Jackson went 54 yards to put the Wildcats up two scores.

Still the Wildcats couldn’t get out of their own way. After Illinois missed a field goal, Thorson was sacked and fumbled. Four plays later, the visitors had cut the lead to one touchdown once again, 28-21.

On the following drive, Northwestern punted after one first down but got yet another gift when Darius Mosely coughed it up after a lengthy return. The Wildcats took advantage once again, using a couple big Jackson runs to move within 9 yards of the endzone, and Thorson used a clever flip pass to a wide open Garrett Dickerson on what looked like a quarterback keeper. It was Thorson’s 21st touchdown of the season, tying Brett Basanez for most in a Northwestern single season, and put the hosts up 35-21.

On the ensuing drive, the Wildcats forced their fourth turnover of the game to essentially put a bow on the contest. Montre Hartage took an errant Lunt pass and ran it back 66 yards, getting dragged down at the five. Jackson punched it in for his third score of the afternoon.

Illinois drove down the field once more but failed in the redzone, and Northwestern ran out the clock to double up its in-state rivals, keep the Hat and clinch bowl eligibility.

Takeaways

  • The Wildcats’ tremendous struggles in short-yardage are very concerning, especially on fourth down. In the first half, Thorson was sacked on third-and-three at the Illinois 39. The sophomore quarterback had time but couldn’t find anyone and eventually went down. On the second fourth-and-short, Jackson bounced it outside but Garrett Dickerson was flagged for holding and the hosts were forced to punt. Against a bad Illinois front missing a couple of starters, that’s just inexcusable.
  • After giving up seven sacks last week to Minnesota, the Wildcats gave up five to the Illini, though not all of them were on the group up front. Thorson has to have a better internal clock and learn how to extend plays in the pocket. Still, the line play was generally underwhelming, and several holding calls wiped out big gains for the Wildcats.
  • Northwestern couldn’t get anything going down the field; Thorson’s longest completion was just 16 yards. Overall, he was not impressive with either his work in the pocket nor his accuracy downfield. The Illini also did a solid job against Austin Carr, limiting the Biletnikoff Award finalist to just 26 yards on four catches.
  • The Wildcats really struggled against Malik Turner and the Illinois wide receivers in general. The Illini were open all day on curl routes and then were able to stretch the defense down the field somewhat. Turner finished the day with 11 catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns. In a season full of ups and downs for the unit, today was a major down save for Hartage’s interception.
  • NORTHWESTERN IS GOING BOWLING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It wasn’t always pretty, but the biggest overall objective was achieved. It’s the first time ever the Wildcats have made a bowl after starting a season 0-2.