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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern retains the HAT, beats Illinois 24-16

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Breathe.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON — Bring on the Buckeyes. After Ohio State earned its place in Indianapolis by dominating Michigan, Northwestern (8-4, 8-1 B1G) slugged it out against Illinois (4-8, 2-7), beating the Illini 24-16 on Senior Day. The win marked Northwestern’s best five year run in program history, with 40 wins (and counting) over that span.

Isaiah Bowser had another phenomenal game, carrying the ball 18 times for 166 yards. Clayton Thorson also had one of his best games of the season, even if the numbers don’t show it. Thorson displayed the finesse and poise that has been missing for a large portion of the season, completing 12/17 passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns.

Another positive sign for Northwestern came in the form of Jake Collins, who averaged 46 yards on four punts. Additionally, the graduate transfer was forced to take over the kicking duties after injuries to Charlie Kuhbander and Drew Luckenbaugh, and he delivered, connecting on 3 extra points and a short field goal.

The game could not have started in a better fashion for Northwestern. After forcing a punt from Illinois on the opening drive, Isaiah Bowser carried the ball for 55 yards on Northwestern’s first play. Chad Hanaoka followed it up with a clutch 12 yard rush on third down, and Thorson capitalized with an eight yard touchdown pass to Bennett Skowronek.

On Illinois’ two proceeding drives, it was able to move the ball into the Northwestern five-yard-line, but on both occasions, Northwestern’s “bend don’t break” defense held strong, limiting Illinois to two Chase McLaughlin field goals.

Northwestern’s offense found its rhythm on their next drive, riding Isaiah Bowser to the tune of six carries and a reception before Thorson snuck the ball in for another rushing touchdown, his eighth of the season.

The Wildcats quickly got the ball back with 1:47 left to go in the first half, and they put together a beautiful drive. A combination of Thorson passes (including a gorgeous throw and catch to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman) and Hanaoka runs took Northwestern into the Illinois red zone. On third-and-goal from the Illinois five-yard-line, Thorson stood in the pocket and took a hit while floating the ball into the arms of Riley Lees for a touchdown.

Northwestern started the second half the same way it did in the first, utilizing Isaiah Bowser and Chad Hanaoka to grind its way down the field. Jake Collins knocked in a 25 yard field goal after the drive stalled on the Illinois seven-yard-line.

The two teams traded punts before Chase McLaughlin kicked another short field goal to make it a two score game in the beginning of the fourth quarter. Pat Fitzgerald responded by removing Clayton Thorson from the game and bringing in TJ Green. If Fitz’s logic was that the game was over, Illinois proved him mistaken. The Illini took the ball down the field, and this time, a touchdown was a result.

Green remained in the game for the next Northwestern drive, and another three-and-out was the result. Just as it seemed Illinois was on the verge of having a chance to tie the game, Paddy Fisher intercepted an AJ Bush pass inside the Northwestern red zone. A TJ Green led Northwestern offense was able to run out the clock, and Northwestern sealed the victory.

Northwestern’s focus now turns to the biggest game of the Pat Fitzgerald era, the Big Ten Championship game next week in Indianapolis. Northwestern will be making its first conference title game appearance after booking its spot two weeks ago in Iowa.

Get ready for a fun week ahead.