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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern runs past Illinois on a rainy Senior Day, advances to 6-1

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The Wildcats put it in cruise control after the first quarter.

EVANSTON, Illinois — For the sixth consecutive year, the Land of Lincoln Trophy stays where it belongs.

Northwestern (6-1) took down rival Illinois (2-5) 28-10 in its final regular-season game behind a standout performance from the Wildcat running backs. NU coasted to an easy win to gain momentum ahead of a clash with No. 4 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game next week.

Call it the Cam Porter and Evan Hull show. After the true freshman scored his first career touchdown in NU’s last game at Michigan State, the Wildcats leaned on Porter to the tune of 142 yards and two scores on 24 carries — 10 of which were out of the wildcat formation. Hull had his fair share of big runs as well, finishing with 149 yards and a touchdown on 13 attempts. The Wildcat run game recorded 411 total yards — its first 400-yard game in 17 years — and averaged 7.1 yards per carry.

The inclement weather led to a quiet day from the passing game, as quarterback Peyton Ramsey threw the ball just 12 times with seven completions for 82 yards and a touchdown.

It was a rough start for the Wildcats, as Drake Anderson fumbled on Northwestern’s first offensive play of the game and gave the Illini the ball at the NU 20-yard line. Mike Hankwitz’s defense held, however, and blustery conditions caused James McCourt to miss a field goal attempt wide right.

Illinois continued to hammer the run game, opening up gaps along Northwestern’s defensive front that was without Jake Saunders and Trevor Kent. Running back Chase Brown led the charge on the ground, finishing with 70 yards on 14 attempts. However, the Illini stalled yet again in Northwestern territory and settled for a field goal, giving them the 3-0 advantage.

On Northwestern’s next drive, Porter provided a huge spark with a 31-yard rush, and Kyric McGowan followed up with a 22-yard scamper of his own. The chunk plays helped NU march into Illinois territory, and Ramsey connected with Charlie Mangieri from two yards out to put the ‘Cats on top 7-3 on the first play of the second quarter.

Illinois’ next drive stalled, but punter Blake Hayes executed a well-designed fake punt to keep them on the field. Northwestern’s defense held firm and forced Illinois to attempt a 53-yard field goal, which came up well short.

Fourth down conversions were a theme on Northwestern’s second touchdown drive. The Wildcats converted three fourth-down attempts on their half-ending drive, which ended with Porter eventually punching it in to put NU up 14-3 right before the half. NU finished the game 5-of-7 on fourth-down attempts.

To open the second half, the ‘Cats came out hot and stuck to their run game. They threw the ball only twice. A nine-play, 75-yard drive, capped off by an 18-yard rush by Porter out of the wildcat, extended Northwestern’s lead to 18.

A quick three-and-out by the Illini handed the ball right back to the Wildcats, and after going backward for two plays, Ramsey hit McGowan over the middle for a 33-yard gain before Hull sprinted another 32 yards to the house.

Late in the third quarter, Andrew Marty replaced Ramsey under center. The ‘Cats continued to tear up Illinois’ run defense and burn clock, and a somewhat uneventful third quarter was brought to a close with Northwestern leading 28-3.

Against the Wildcat reserves, Illinois’ Isaiah Williams found Brian Hightower over the top for a 46-yard touchdown pass for the Illini’s only end zone trip of the day to make it 28-10. Sixth-year senior QB TJ Green entered the game for the final snap, a poetic ending to another successful Senior Day.

Northwestern will prepare for a trip to Indianapolis next Saturday where it will face off against No. 4 Ohio State (5-0) in hopes of taking home its first Big Ten title in 20 years.