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Player grades from Northwestern’s 42-21 win over Illinois

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The running backs lead the group.

Illinois v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Every week after a Northwestern win or loss, we'll be handing out player grades as a way to analyze the Wildcats' performance from an individual perspective. Rather than rush out the grades on Saturday, we'll sleep on them, and wake up ready to accurately evaluate NU's players, coaches and opponents.

After a fast start, a second quarter slump and a strong finish, Northwestern guaranteed bowl eligibility with a 42-21 win over in-state rival Illinois. The Wildcats let their foes hang around for far too long and had some major struggles at times, and those issues are reflected in our grades.

Clayton Thorson: C

13 for 20, 121 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions; 12 rushes, -21 yards, 5 sacks, 1 lost fumble

This was a very, very average performance for Thorson and a step back in general from when we’ve seen him at his best this season. Thorson was generally pretty accurate but also missed some throws; that wasn’t the issue, though. The issue was his pocket presence. He took a lot of sacks when he could have extended the play either in the pocket or by breaking contain. Instead, he went down under pressure. The fumble was a bad mistake — a freshman mistake. As a result, NU went very run-heavy in the second half (probably also due to Illinois’ complete inability to stop the ground game). He salvaged a pretty nondescript stat line with a nifty flick to Garrett Dickerson for a touchdown.

Justin Jackson and John Moten IV: A

Jackson: 21 carries, 173 yards, 3 touchdowns; 1 catch, 5 yards

Moten IV: 14 carries, 128 yards, 2 touchdowns

This duo was fantastic all day and led the way when things appeared to be getting dicey. Jackson was at his best when his team needed him most, reeling off a 54-yard score on a stretch run in which he had to stop, wait and completely halt his forward momentum before picking his spot and then outrunning everyone else using some nifty angles. Really, watch how good this is:

Then there’s Moten, whose career day helped the Wildcats get off to a great start. These guys are really good, and on a day where the offense wasn’t stretching the field vertically with the pass, the dynamic running back duo was able to rip off chunk yardage.

Wide receivers: B-

Combined: 9 receptions, 84 yards, 0 touchdowns

With Austin Carr contained well (4 receptions, 26 yards), there were few bright spots for this group. There were a few drops, and some of the sacks Thorson took seemed to be coverage sacks, meaning the guys out wide weren’t getting open. It was a very quiet day statistically (the only touchdown was to superback Garrett Dickerson). Hopefully a fully healthy Carr will help make for a better downfield passing attack in the bowl game. The group as a whole blocked well on the outside, which elevates the grade at least half of a letter considering how many stretch runs the Wildcats ran.

Offensive line: C+

Sans senior tackle Eric Olson, the Wildcats’ reshuffled offensive line looked out of sync. Tommy Doles slid over from right guard to right tackle, J.B. Butler stepped in at right guard, and Connor Mahoney played at left guard. Of the five sacks Thorson took, a few of them were on the offensive line and a couple seemed to be more on him, but against a banged-up Illini front, that number is still way too high regardless. The grade is somewhat salvaged by a monster day on the ground, but even then, there were a lot of plays that were poorly blocked. Also worth noting: Brad North went down late in the game and was replaced by Jared Thomas.

Anthony Walker Jr.: A-

9 total tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble

Walker was all over the place on Saturday, and his game-altering punchout that led to a Godwin Igwebuike recovery was a fantastic play. He also made a crucial TFL against Illinois running back Reggie Corbin. It was one of The Franchise’s better games.

Montre Hartage: B-

7 total tackles, 1 interception, 66 return yards

It’s pretty tough to gauge Hartage’s performance and assign it a grade. If Wes Lunt doesn’t throw way behind his intended receiver and gift Hartage with an interception, this grade is at least a full letter lower. Then again, there’s something to be said about being in the right spot, and what he did once he reeled in the pick was fantastic. Still, Hartage was soundly beaten, often by Malik Turner (11 receptions, 164 yards, 2 touchdowns) and tackled poorly. In a season full of ups and downs, Hartage had a down day with one very big up.

Trae Williams: B

3 tackles, 3 pass breakups

Quietly this one was of Williams’ better performances this year. Yes, his playing well off opposing receivers allowed for a few easy completions, but he tackled in space very well and was aggressive with anything longer than a few yards down the field, as evidenced by his three pass breakups.

Mick McCall: B-

You can go one of two ways when evaluating McCall. Option 1 is “Mick McCall was too conservative, reverted to run-run-pass playcalling and helped make this game closer than it should have been at halftime.” Option 2 is “Mick McCall deserves credit for sticking with the run even when it slowed and not panicking and going completely pass-heavy, as he has several times this year.” I’ll fall partially into both. Yes, he could have been more aggressive with his team in front and really shut the door on the visitors, but he also deserves to continue attacking the porous Illini run defense even when it stalled temporarily. The biggest qualm I have is his third- and fourth-and-short play calls. There needs to be a set of plays that work every time. Fourth down is way too much of an adventure for this team right now, and it’s cost the Wildcats points throughout the season.

Mike Hankwitz: C

When tasked with a young defensive secondary, one can either ramp up pressure in hopes that quarterbacks won’t have time to attack it or drop more men into coverage to help. It is clear that Hankwitz prefers to do the latter. Against Illinois, it didn’t work. An offense that had averaged under 200 yards per game over the past two weeks had 434 against the Wildcats and was able to move the ball with relative ease at times. Give the defense credit for creating some turnovers, but it was far too easy for Wes Lunt most of the day. The Wildcats were able to stiffen in the redzone, but it certainly wasn’t a great performance by any stretch.

Pat Fitzgerald: A

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