CHAMPAIGN — After a season in which it seemed nothing would go right, Northwestern got just the boost it needed heading into the offseason, defeating its rival Illinois for the fifth consecutive year by a final score of 29-10.
A usually anemic Northwestern offense exploded by way of a run-heavy scheme that featured a unique group of backs and a heavy dosage of Andrew Marty carries. In his first start, the Ohio native ran for 111 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the first NU QB since Clayton Thorson in 2015 to cross 100 yards, while the team as a whole picked up 378 yards on the ground.
NU got a huge boost from true freshman and former cornerback Coco Azema, who led the way on the ground for the Wildcats with 123 rushing yards and two scores on just seven carries.
The Wildcat defense also put together one if its best performances of the season, asserting its dominance all afternoon as the unit held Illinois to 146 total yards, including a mere 14 yards on the ground.
Northwestern opened with efficiency on offense. While the first NU drive stalled at midfield, the second Marty-led trek resulted in a field goal, though it should have been more. A dropped pass from Trey Pugh in the end zone cost the ‘Cats an easy touchdown.
The Northwestern defense was even better, as the unit limited an Illinois offense without starting quarterback Brandon Peters and starting receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe to two yards on its first two drives.
Marty’s third drive as a starting quarterback began on the 50 yard line after a penalty-aided punt return, but it ended with a fourth-down interception that was returned inside Northwestern territory. A big mistake from the redshirt sophomore gave Illinois the spark it needed. An inspired Illini team took the ball into the endzone after a single minute, giving them an early 7-3 lead.
The Northwestern response was impressive, however, and a run-heavy Wildcat offense was able to muster 75 yards on 14 running plays and a single passing play. Marty punched the ball in on a designed run, rewarding another well-executed drive. The resulting 10-7 score held to the half, meaning NU would take a lead into the half for the fourth time in 2019.
Illinois’ opening drive in the second half was odd to say the least. A third down completion that was thrown two yards passed the line of scrimmage was ruled legitimate by the refs, but the series ultimately concluded with a missed 48-yard kick, and NU took over on its 31.
On the ensuing drive, the Northwestern offense picked up right where it left off, marching down the field in two and a half minutes and ending with a dime from Marty to Lees. For the first time in a long time, watching NU felt fun.
The Illini answered by converting some timely third downs and taking the ball into NU territory once again. Northwestern forced another long field goal from Illinois, and this time James McCourt found a little bit of luck, doinking his 50-yarder off the upright and in.
But the dominant mish-mash Northwestern run game would not let up, as true freshman Coco Azema broke off a 62-yard run on third down. The Texas native is a defensive back by trade, but his speed and explosiveness was evident on the ground throughout the contest. He’s going to be an exciting piece on this team moving forward.
A massive bailout from the refs put Northwestern in a phenomenal position at the beginning of the fourth quarter. On third and long inside the Illinois red zone, Marty made an ill-advised decision to throw into the endzone. The ball was intercepted, but a hands to the face call on Illinois gifted NU a fresh set of downs. It was a questionable call at best, but Marty took advantage of the gift, sneaking the ball in for another score. Charlie Kubander missed the extra point, meaning NU led 23-10.
When Northwestern got the ball back, redshirt freshman and former walk-on receiver Ray Niro added another dagger into the Illini, this time in the form of a 39 yard run. The drive ended with another missed Kuhbander kick, this time a 36-yard attempt.
After some uninspiring back-and-forth play in the fourth quarter, Azema capped things off with a touchdown scamper to bring the NU lead up to 29-10 and seal the win.
At the end of the day, Northwestern got the win, and that’s what matters most. Despite an incredibly underwhelming season, the Wildcats walked away from their rival stadium with a FIFTH STRAIGHT HAT, which provides some sort of silver lining to a season that desperately needed one.
It will be an offseason full of questions and concerns for this Northwestern program moving forward, but for now, we can rejoice: the HAT is in its rightful place.