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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern loses HAT to Illinois in pathetic fashion, falls 47-14

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The flame has officially died out.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In what was nothing short of a horrific showing, Northwestern (3-9, 1-8 B1G) fell to Illinois (5-7, 4-5 B1G) 47-14 to lose the HAT and set up one hell of a long offseason.

There were few bright spots throughout for the ‘Cats, but Malik Washington was certainly one of them. He finished with seven catches for 83 yards, providing a spark for NU’s otherwise anemic offense. Ryan Hilinski led the way in the passing game, competing 12-of-23 passes for 123 yards and one interception. Evan Hull tacked on 101 yards and one touchdown on the ground via 32 carries, finishing with just over 1,000 yards rushing on the season.

Illinois began its opening drive with a 25-yard completion up the middle of the field from Brandon Peters to Isaiah Williams. However, the Wildcats were able to hold firm and force an Illini punt. They may have received a little help from the refs after it appeared Cam Mitchell got away with pass interference on third down.

Northwestern’s first drive was largely uneventful. After four straight handoffs to Hull, the first three of which resulted in a first down, two incompletions from Andrew Marty led to a NU punt.

After the Illini got the ball back, they quickly went three-and-out, handing the ball right back to the ‘Cats. A three-yard run by Hull set them up in decent position on second down, but on the next play, Marty fumbled in a truly comical fashion by dropping the ball as he pulled his arm back to throw. Illinois recovered on NU’s eight yard line and quickly punched it in on a rush by Daniel Barker, making the score 7-0.

On Northwestern’s next drive, it went backwards five yards. Marty almost fumbled again on third down and the ‘Cats were forced to punt again. After a 10-yard completion from Peters to Casey Washington, the Illini went for it all and hit big. Peters found Williams for a 39-yard touchdown on a play where no one in NU’s secondary was even remotely near the ball, putting the Illini up 14-0.

The ‘Cats began their next drive with Hilinski in at quarterback and were forced to fourth down almost immediately, which they were able to convert on. They kept driving but eventually stalled in the red zone, going for it on fourth-and-5 and this time turning the ball over via a Hilinski incompletion. At the end of the first quarter, it was all Illini.

That trend continued in the second quarter. On the second play of Illinois’ drive, Peters connected deep with Washington, this time for 56 yards. Five plays later, Chase Brown punched it in from one yard out, putting the Illini up by three scores.

Northwestern’s next drive only got worse. After going backwards for the first two plays, Hilinski heaved a ball into triple coverage and was picked off by Jartavius Martin. On Illinois’ first play, Williams took it 21 yards to the house on a jet sweep. Just like that, it was 28-0 with 10 minutes to go in the second quarter.

At last, Malik Washington gave the ‘Cats a little bit of life. On what was supposed to be a routine screen pass, Washington broke a few tackles and sped up the sideline for a 23-yard gain. A few plays later, NU converted a fourth-and-1 to keep the drive alive. Then, on third-and-goal from the one-yard line, Hilinski punched the ball on a QB sneak. The 11-play, 75-yard drive made it a three score game.

Illinois wasn’t done, though. The Illini continued to punish Northwestern on the ground, eventually getting the ball down inside the Wildcats’ 20-yard line. NU did stand its ground, holding Illinois to just a field goal that left the score at 31-7. Northwestern also lost Bryce Gallagher on this drive, as he was taken to the medical tent before walking to the locker room.

There wasn’t much action for Northwestern before halftime, but the Illini tacked on two more field goals to go up 37-7. After 30 minutes of play, Northwestern had been outgained by 205 total yards.

Unsurprisingly, the second half began with the same trends as the first. The ‘Cats started with the ball, got it to fourth-and-1, were going to go for it but had a false start and then proceeded to punt the football away. Illinois proceeded to march down the field a bit and added yet another field goal — this time from 49 yards out — to make the score 40-7.

Throughout the rest of the third quarter, there wasn’t a ton of action, with the two teams trading punts back and forth. At one point, Hilinski was sacked twice in a row, once again highlighting Northwestern’s offensive line struggles. At another, a Peters pass intended for Chase Brown bounced off of Mitchell and into the hands of Troy Hudetz, who was filling in for the injured Gallagher. The score remained 40-7 at the end of the third quarter, the lowest scoring quarter of the game.

To open the fourth quarter, Northwestern failed to convert on third-and-4 and then proceeded to punt. Much like the prior 45 minutes of game time, Illinois began to drive. Peter McIntyre almost managed to force a fumble with a big hit on Michael Marchese, but Marchese was ruled down. A few minutes later, the Illini added on another touchdown when Josh McCray went six yards up the middle to find paydirt.

The ‘Cats were able to tack on one more touchdown in garbage time, making the score 47-14. Of note, Hull reached 1,000 rushing yards on the season on this final drive, providing one final moment for Northwestern fans to cheer for.

With that, Northwestern’s 2021 season is done. The ‘Cats return to action in August 2022 when they travel to Dublin, Ireland to face Nebraska.