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Rapid Reaction: Illinois defeats Northwestern 41-3 to end the season

Somehow, they saved their worst for last.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON, Ill. — A fitting end to say the least.

Northwestern (1-11, 1-8 B1G) and Illinois (8-4, 5-4 B1G) met for the Land of Lincoln trophy in the final week of this desolate regular season. The Wildcats, losers of 10-straight, were looking to avoid their worst record in 33 years and pull off a colossal Big Ten upset. Unfortunately for Northwestern, the magic never came, as it fell to the division title-seeking Illini 41-3 and the HAT returned to Champaign for the second-straight season. The win also clinched the Illini's best regular season finish since 2007, back when they finished 9-3 ahead of a Rose Bowl berth.

Illinois entered the game on a three-game losing skid, needing a win in Evanston and an upset in Bloomington from the Indiana Hoosiers to clinch a Big Ten championship berth. It wasn’t a prolific offensive day from Bret Bielema’s squad, as DeVito only threw for 136 yards and the team’s 156 rushing yards were short of previous highs from this season, but a stellar defensive showing and five Wildcat turnovers were all the orange and blue needed for the blowout victory.

After punts on the opening possessions for both teams, Illinois went to work with its bread and butter of ground-and-pound football. After Chase Brown was taken out of the game to examine his ankle, Reggie Love III took full advantage of a newfound opportunity to shine in Evanston today. A 10-play, 70-yard drive gave the Illini its first lead of the game, capped off by Love’s 2-yard touchdown run.

Ultimately, the story of the game was the visiting defense. Illinois came into the game ranked in the top five in several defensive categories across the FBS, and turnovers soon began to pile up for the Wildcats. Three interceptions, including two from DeVon Witherspoon and one from Sydney Brown, frustrated the Northwestern passing attack throughout the entire first half. This led to a 17-0 cushion entering the break, as Cole Freeman and Co. failed to produce much of anything offensively. In his second start, it was an absolutely dreadful day from Freeman, as the sophomore quarterback finished 12-22 for a mere 93 yards to go along with four backbreaking interceptions.

The second half didn’t fare much better for the Wildcats, as it quickly turned disastrous when a mishandled snap led to a Brown 50-yard scoop-and-score touchdown to put Illinois up 27-0 midway through the third. That would only be followed by another Freeman-to-Brown interception on the next series, which was of course returned for another touchdown, making the deficit 34-0, and sucking any air that remained in Ryan Field straight out of the building.

The Illini made few mistakes, but the Wildcats defense gave the home crowd something to cheer about late with a Rod Heard interception that set up the ‘Cats and newly inserted QB Jack Lausch in scoring position.

Although the game was well out of reach, an Adam Stage field goal gave the ‘Cats their first points of the game with 12:17 left in regulation, but another long Illinois touchdown drive made it a 41-3 result that was exactly what the final score made it out to be, allowing Illinois to retain the HAT for another year as Bielema moved to 2-0 against Pat Fitzgerald in the intrastate rivalry.

Northwestern’s 2022 season (obviously) has come to its conclusion, as the ‘Cats won’t take the field again until September 2, 2023, when they travel to Piscataway for a season-opening clash against Rutgers.