After a slow first quarter, the Wildcats turned on the jets and ran past Illinois on Senior Day to win their sixth straight in the rivalry series. NU totaled 411 (!) yards on the ground, led by the duo of Cam Porter and Evan Hull, who combined for 391 yards and three scores.
Welcome to Evanston, Cam Porter. It’s clear the true freshman has been waiting for this opportunity. The slippery weather paved the way for a run-heavy game plan, and Porter showcased his vision and ability to maneuver through tackles on both handoffs and out of the wildcat. His on-field awareness was sharp as well, as he took extra care to hold onto the ball in the wet conditions. The Cincinnati native, who attended the same high school as former NU running back Jeremy Larkin, totaled 142 rushing yards on 5.9 yards per carry and two touchdowns. Many surmised Porter would be the back of the future, but he might be the go-to option for the rest of the season.
The Irish Law Firm
The linebacking corps, Paddy Fisher, Chris Bergin and notably Blake Gallagher did not disappoint. Combining for 17 tackles, their leadership in the backfield and anticipation of ball movement stopped the Illini in their tracks several times in the latter three quarters of the game. At the beginning of the game, Gallagher took matters into his own hands and made several key tackles to force red zone stops totaling. The Illini are a run-first team, and they got their yards, but they could not throw the ball.
The offensive line
There was another reason for Porter’s (and Evan Hull’s) success today, and it was the ability of the offensive line to create holes all over the field. True freshman Peter Skoronski looked like a seasoned vet on the left side, forcing ample space out wide for ball carriers to shift through. For a team that has struggled to run the ball the last few weeks (averaging 3.7 yards per game entering the matchup), it was refreshing to see the O-line open up the field to the ground game when it came down to it.
Honorable mentions: Evan Hull, Kyric McGowan, the seniors, gothic uniforms, defense for the final three quarters, HAT HAT HAT
Pressuring the quarterback
Despite a few moments of brilliance from edge rushers Adetomiwa Adebawore and Earnest Brown IV in the first quarter, the ‘Cats defensive line was unable to put significant pressure on Illinois’ signal callers Isaiah Williams and Brandon Peters. Per usual, they had difficulty containing QB draws early on, and solid coverage in the secondary and slippery conditions were the only things stopping an air raid. Though the scoreline today may not show it, a lack of pressure could be detrimental next week with an extremely mobile and accurate quarterback in Ohio State’s Justin Fields.
NU has been a second-half team all season, but some of its slow starts have proved problematic. Early on, the Wildcats looked lethargic. Bajakian’s offense was held scoreless in the first quarter and looked reminiscent of NU’s slow start versus Iowa in Week Two and Michigan State in Week Six. A Drake Anderson fumble on the Wildcats’ first drive left the Illini in the red zone, one of their three scoring opportunities in the first quarter alone. Fortunately for Fitz and co., Illinois’ inability to convert only left NU a field goal behind. Nonetheless, slacking off in the first quarter versus the Buckeyes could mean the difference between a blowout and a relatively close game in Indianapolis.
Despite having avoided rough game-day conditions for the majority of this year’s modified season, the ‘Cats couldn’t escape at least one slippery game. It affected both teams, causing an early fumble on Northwestern’s first drive of the game, which contributed to an Illinois scoring opportunity, and the Illini receivers dropped several catchable passes. A muffed kickoff return by Riley Lees nearly cost the ‘Cats six points at the end of the game as well.
Honorable mentions: No handoff to Joe Spivak (give the people what they want!), missed interception opportunities