Northwestern took home Lincoln’s cap for the sixth straight year in a commanding 28-10 win on Saturday against Illinois. The regular-season finale put the ‘Cats at 6-1 on the year as they now turn their focus to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game. Here are five things we learned from Saturday’s win.
Cam Porter and Evan Hull may be the answer to the running struggles
Prior to this game, the ‘Cats had combined for a dismal 167 yards over the past three games to average 2.4 yards per carry. What acted as the focal point of the offense early on had gone completely out the window and left the Wildcat faithful worried if the offense would be able to rebound. Well, rebound they did.
Northwestern rushed for 411 yards, the best total in 17 years, for an average of 7.1 yards per carry. The major change in the ground game came as a result of different personnel, as the team opted for the freshmen Porter and Hull over mainstays Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson.
Porter took on most of the workload, rushing 24 times for 142 yards and two touchdowns. The true freshman offered a change of pace and a burst of fresh energy that jump-started the Northwestern offense all day. Hull saw a majority of his looks in the second half and continuously broke off for substantial runs to end with 149 himself off just 13 carries.
This game could be a changing of the guards for the run game, seeing that Bowser and Anderson saw minimal touches. Anderson fumbled on his first carry and did not see the field again, and Bowser made his first appearance in the middle of the second quarter and ended with five carries. While Fitz may have just been riding the hot hand, the drastic difference in production could mean that Porter and Hull take a majority of the carries against Ohio State.
Rush attack showed creativity
A knock on Mike Bajakian’s offense over the past few weeks has been the lack of variety in the run game. Against the Fighting Illini, Bajakian seemed to completely revise his playbook to include a plethora of new schemes.
The biggest change in the Wildcats’ running game was in the use of the wildcat set. Porter ran from the wildcat 10 times and continuously saw success, including a fourth-down conversion in the first half. Illinois was bullied at the line of scrimmage the entire game and the ‘Cats recognized and exploited that early and often.
Additionally, Northwestern used seven different rushers in the game. Quarterbacks Peyton Ramsey and Andrew Marty ended with 12 combined rushes for 68 yards. The use of athleticism in the draw was a consistent threat and wide receiver Kyric McGowan used his speed on the jet sweep to end with 34 yards himself.
Secondary remains dominant
Illinois ranked last in the Big Ten in passing yards per game with 166 coming into Saturday. That combined with atrocious weather made passing the ball a tall task for any offense. Nevertheless, the Wildcat secondary’s performance was incredibly impressive.
Fighting Illini quarterback Brandon Peters finished the game 3-for-14 for 21 yards before being replaced by the redshirt freshman Isaiah Williams. Williams was able to complete a few long throws, including a 46-yard touchdown, but those came when the game was out of reach. The ‘Cats continued to dominate in the passing attack and forced the Fighting Illini to rely heavily on the run.
Run defense able to stop quarterback runs
In the loss to Michigan State, Spartan quarterback Rocky Lombardi scrambled for 65 yards, and the Wildcat defense was never able to pick up on it. Now, matched up against an Illinois side with one of the conference’s fastest quarterbacks in Williams, there was concern that once again, the ‘Cats would struggle to contain the scrambler.
Northwestern was able to shut down the quarterback run from the jump. Williams gained just five yards off of three attempts in the first half. Peters, who has flashed signs of mobility throughout the season, was held to just eight yards rushing.
Looking towards the Big Ten Championship, the ‘Cats face one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation in Justin Fields. If Northwestern wants to have a chance against the Buckeyes, they must build on their performance against Illinois and continue to contain the quarterback.
Michigan State loss was a wake-up call
Northwestern played with high levels of energy from start to finish. While it went down early, the team did not let the deficit haunt its conscience. A theme in the Michigan State loss was sloppy play from the ‘Cats, who gave up four turnovers and were coming from behind almost the entire game. The upset clearly humbled the team, who had grown accustomed to winning close games the entire season, and the new energy led to a dominant performance.
What was an especially positive sign was that the ‘Cats never took the foot off the gas. Even when up by double digits, the offense continued to take up time of possession and score points.
On the defensive end, Northwestern was once again dominant in the second half. The ‘Cats allowed a mere four yards total in the third quarter and only allowed a touchdown when the defensive reserves were in. This performance was a perfect way to build momentum for a conference championship against an offensive juggernaut in Ohio State.