In our recent ranking of NU’s rivals, we put Illinois right at number one and for good reason. The two football teams have faced off a total of 113 times dating back to 1892, and while Illinois narrowly leads the series 55-53-5, Northwestern has dominated recently, having won five straight and seven of their last eight matchups.
In honor of SB Nation’s Rivalry Week (which spans two weeks, if you’re curious), we decided to take a look at the archives to find and rank the top five Northwestern wins of all-time against Illinois.
Let’s get into the rankings.
5. Northwestern secures their only win of the season (1977)
In 1977, Northwestern lost its first 10 games, coming within a touchdown of Minnesota only. When the Illini rolled into Evanston for NU’s last game of the season, many thought that the ‘Cats were bound to suffer their first winless season in 20 years.
However, in John Pont’s final game as head coach, Northwestern pulled off a 21-7 upset. The unlikely win was not a sign of good times ahead, as the ‘Cats would go on to win a grand total of one game over the next four seasons while setting the record for longest losing streak in FBS history at 34 games.
4. The ‘Cats upset the Fighting Illini (2019)
This one’s fresh, and it was refreshing. Northwestern entered the final game of the 2019 season a dismal 2-9, facing the possibility of going winless in the B1G for the first time since 1998. Illinois, on the other hand, enjoyed one of its best seasons of the decade, having already achieved bowl-eligibility on the backs of two upset wins against Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Clearly, one team took the matchup for granted, and it wasn’t the team that had won four straight in the rivalry. Andrew Marty was the MVP of this one, passing for just 55 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 111 more and two scores on a whopping 30 (!) carries. Freshman cornerback-turned-running-back Coco Azema also added 123 yards on the ground in the much needed-win to cap off a disappointing season on a higher note.
Although this victory didn’t mitigate what happened in the previous eleven games or magically propel the ‘Cats to a bowl game, you could feel the misery of Illini fans, making it worth it.
3. An injury-ridden Northwestern earns final possession of the Sweet Sioux trophy (2008)
(Some context: From 1945 to 2008, Northwestern and Illinois played for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk. 2008 was the last time the two teams played for the trophy as part of the 2005 NCAA directive to no longer use Native American imagery.)
After two relatively underwhelming seasons under new head coach Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats found themselves primed for a nine-win season for just the fifth time in school history, with only Illinois standing in the way.
Northwestern led all game behind a strong, two-touchdown performance from quarterback C.J. Bacher and a stingy defense that sacked Illinois quarterback Juice Williams five times.
Fans stormed the field the end of the game, and the win capped off what was one of the best regular seasons in NU football history at the time. That year was the first of five consecutive bowl appearances
2. The Wildcats break the Illini’s seven-game rivalry winning streak (1986)
The 1980s were a dark, dark time for Northwestern football. During the decade, the ‘Cats had three different head coaches, three winless years and never had more than four wins in a season.
NU met Illinois looking to win its fourth game of the year and attain its best record since 1973 (yes, this sounds worse than some modern day Rutger). However, having lost its past seven games to the Illini by an average of 25 points, the odds certainly weren’t in Northwestern’s favor.
The two teams battled for most of the game, but Wildcat kicker John Duvic was the hero, kicking three field goals, including a crucial 28-yarder to give NU a 20-18 lead with 1:25 remaining. The ‘Cats won 23-18.
1. NU comes back to stun Illinois (1992)
There’s nothing better than a comeback story. And on Oct. 24, Northwestern quarterback Len Williams led the ‘Cats to one of the most improbable and dramatic comebacks in program history.
The Wildcats started slow, falling into a deficit quickly behind a stout Illini running game. But Williams caught fire in the fourth quarter. He completed 11 of 13 passes for 128 yards and three touchdowns in the final 13 minutes as he rallied the ‘Cats from a 20-6 deficit to beat out the 18-point favorites, 27-26. Lee Gissendaner made a diving TD grab with just 13 seconds left in the game to cap the wild victory.
NU won just three games that year, but the intense and unlikely nature of this game in front of an Illini crowd of 50,000+ puts it at the top of this list.
Disagree with our rankings? Any games that you think we missed? Let us know in the comments below!