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Five things we learned from Northwestern’s season-ending loss to Illinois

At least it’s over, both the game and the season.

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

Well, it’s official. The Northwestern Wildcats have officially gone 1-11, marking the program’s worst record since its winless 1989 campaign. The 41-3 loss to the Illini was the second straight year that Illinois has taken the HAT from Northwestern. The same things that plagued the ‘Cats all year — turnovers, an anemic offense and a defense that couldn’t get stops in the red zone — were on full display once again in a fitting end to a forgettable season.

The turnovers need to be fixed

Heading into Saturday, Northwestern was near the bottom of the nation with 25 turnovers committed on the year. After a stunning six-turnover showing against Illinois, the team isn’t just near rock bottom — it is rock bottom. Northwestern leads the nation in turnovers committed through the regular season with 31, outpacing traditional “powers” such as Central Michigan and Rice. The team had nine games this year where it committed multiple turnovers, including one-possession losses to Duke, Southern Illinois, Miami (Ohio) and Maryland. Cole Freeman completed 12 passes to Northwestern players and four passes to Illinois players before being yanked, and Jack Lausch threw an end zone interception to ensure that Northwestern would score no touchdowns. It was probably the worst offensive performance of the year, and that’s saying something for a team that’s 108th in the country in total offense.

The quarterback battle will be interesting

It seems pretty clear that next year’s starter will be someone who saw action this year. But who? Brendan Sullivan would seem to be the favorite, but much like Ryan Hilinski, Sullivan battled injuries for most of the back half of the year. Freeman was picked off an astonishing four times against Illinois, but Lausch completed just four of his eight passes against the Illini. Any of the four could probably get the start against Rutgers next September, but one thing’s for sure: their performance next year will have to be a lot better.

The defense had another rough day

My biggest concern heading into this matchup was whether Northwestern would be able to limit Illinois dynamo Chase Brown. However, Brown was contained and took his 19 carries for just 61 yards, a season low by far. Unfortunately, this meant that Reggie Love III was able to have a career day for the Illini, as he rushed 11 times for 87 yards and a score. This was the ninth game this season that the ‘Cats gave up over 150 rushing yards, a fitting close to the season for the 111th-best rush defense in the FBS.

The talent can only do so much

Evan Hull had an excellent season this year, finishing 14th in the nation at 1,640 all-purpose yards. Despite this tremendous performance, Hull was only able to drag this team to a 1-11 record, and even the win was against a Scott Frost outfit that may have been trying to lose.

Looking at the other players around Hull in the all-purpose yardage standings, one thing becomes apparent: they all have other talent around them. Zach Charbonnet’s UCLA, Bijan Robinson’s Texas, Keaton Mitchell’s East Carolina, Deuce Vaughn’s Kansas State, Brad Robert's Air Force and Eric Gray’s Oklahoma are all at least .500. The only other player in the top 20 in all purpose yardage whose team has fewer than five wins on the year is Johnnie Lang of Arkansas State.

Here’s an even bigger issue: Hull has declared for the draft, meaning that the crutch for Northwestern’s offense will be gone. This means that...

The rebuild will come soon

Things may actually get worse before they get better for Northwestern. Adetomiwa Adebawore won’t be wearing the purple and white next year, and it’s very possible that Evan Hull, Peter Skoronski and many more (potentially including Cam Porter and some of those aforementioned quarterbacks) will also leave. Will Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller want to stay when their talents could be better utilized elsewhere? Is Bryce Kirtz going to be able to be the WR1 on a team that’s losing at least three receivers to graduation?

There are far more questions than answers when looking toward next year, especially when there are whispers of changes coming at the coordinator levels. If those whispers end up being mere rumors, then next year might be just as bad as this one. Can you guarantee Northwestern will be able to beat a team other than UTEP and Howard with Mike Bajakian and Jim O’Neil? Can you even guarantee wins in those games? Next year is going to be another struggle no matter what, but how many changes are made in the offseason will determine how long these new dark ages last.