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Five things we learned from Northwestern’s regular season finale against Illinois

The HAT is back in Evanston.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 25 Northwestern at Illinois Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After an absolute thriller in Champaign, Northwestern will be bringing the hat back to Evanston for the first time in three years. Saturday’s affair was a very different game than what Northwestern fans have become accustomed to, with 88 points scored between the two teams. Unlike many ‘Cats games, there was plenty of offense — Northwestern scored more points and allowed more points than it has all year. Still, there was plenty of room for the defense to shine, as the teams also combined for six takeaways. In this year’s battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy, there was a little something for everyone. It was an exciting regular season finale fitting for the impressive 2023 season the Wildcats have had.

As the David Braun and the ‘Cats now await their bowl matchup, here are five takeaways from their rivalry game against Illinois.

Wildcats have short memories

With 1:09 to go in the first half, Ben Bryant made his worst throw of the season. Looking for A.J. Henning deep down the left sideline, he tossed the football straight into the hands of Illinois defensive back Miles Scott, who strolled down the field with ease for a pick-six touchdown. It felt like a devastating blow for Northwestern — Illinois had just gained their first lead of the game, and had the Memorial Stadium momentum on their side. With little time remaining in the half, the ‘Cats could have very easily let the game go into halftime. After all, their quarterback had just thrown a demoralizing pick-six, and they were set to receive the second half’s opening kickoff.

Instead, head coach David Braun and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian put together an impressive drive. They put trust in Bryant, and Bryant put trust in himself. In less than a minute, he completed all four of his pass attempts for 34 yards, leading the ‘Cats all the way down the field for a touchdown. It was a huge moment in the game that gave the ‘Cats a burst of energy heading into halftime. Most importantly, it showed that Ben Bryant was unfazed by the pick. Watching that last first half drive, there would be no way of knowing he had just thrown a crushing interception on the previous drive. As he’s done all season long, Bryant carried himself with calmness and confidence in the midst of adversity.

Cam Johnson is that guy

Cam Johnson delivered with his best performance of the year against Illinois. Catching heat throughout the past few weeks, Johnson’s effort on Saturday was an exclamation point on what has been a very impressive senior season. He racked up seven receptions and 124 yards, both season highs. In the first quarter, it was Johnson on the receiving end of Northwestern’s first touchdown, jumping in the air to grab a 50/50 ball in the end zone.

Johnson was a consistent option for QB Ben Bryant throughout the game, as the ‘Cats frequently took advantage of Johnson’s matchup against a freshman cornerback on the outside. This was especially evident in the third quarter, where Bryant connected with Johnson on three consecutive throws, including a 42 yard shot down the field that set up a touchdown. It was his best game of the year, but for Johnson, it was just a display of the encouraging traits he has shown all year: physicality, athleticism, and chemistry with his quarterback. His versatility as a receiver has been a treat to watch all season, and it was fun to see it culminate in a stellar game against Illinois.

Biggest improvement from last season? Turnovers.

Last year, Northwestern’s turnover differential was -18: the worst figure in all of FBS. The offense’s inability to hold on to the football plagued them all year, and was exacerbated by the fact that the defense could never seem to get it back. The Wildcats’ deep turnover hole was a major reason for their 1-11 record. The ‘Cats only had 12 takeaways and gave the football away 30 times throughout the course of the season. In 2023, Northwestern completely flipped the script, finishing the regular season tied seventh in FBS with a +10 turnover margin. The defense improved with 19 takeaways in 2023, and the offense cut down on giveaways by 21, reducing their total to just 9.

Northwestern’s improvement in the turnover department went beyond the scorebooks — it was clear to see the impact throughout some of the season’s biggest moments. In their upset of Maryland back in early October, the Northwestern offense played clean with no giveaways, and the defense came up with turnovers when it mattered most — a fumble early in the first to set up a score, and a game-sealing interception late in the fourth. The ‘Cats replicated that against Purdue, coming up with a turnover late in fourth to clinch a victory and bowl eligibility.

In the recent effort against Illinois, turnovers once again played a massive role. In the first quarter, a Jaheem Joseph interception put the Wildcats in position to score their first touchdown of the game. The special teams unit got in on the fun in the third quarter, recovering a muffed punt inside the 20 to set up a ‘Cats touchdown, and immediately after, returning a fumbled kickoff to the house for six. A bit later in the fourth, the ball-hawking defense came up clutch yet again, halting Illinois momentum with a Xander Mueller interception that put Northwestern in field goal range. Directly or indirectly, turnovers accounted for 24 of Northwestern’s 45 points against Illinois. The Wildcats once again showed how takeaways and ball security, an Achilles’ heel for last year’s group, have turned into one of their greatest strengths.

The secondary may need a tune-up

Despite two interceptions at the most crucial stages of the game, it was an underwhelming day overall for the Northwestern pass defense. The secondary surrendered more than 300 passing yards for the first time this season, allowing Illinois QB John Paddock the cushion he needed to get comfortable through the air. They were especially vulnerable whenever Paddock targeted Casey Washington, who has typically been the second option for the Illini. On Saturday, Washington put up monster numbers with nine receptions, 218 yards and three touchdowns, and put his talent on full display with a fourth-quarter catch in wide open space that went for 73 yards.

Heading into the matchup against Illinois, it is reasonable to assume that Northwestern prepared heavily to face Isaiah Williams, the top option for Illinois. Williams finished the regular season with 1,055 receiving yards — second in the Big Ten only to Ohio State Heisman hopeful Marvin Harrison Jr. While the ‘Cats kept Williams relatively contained, holding him under 60 yards, they seemingly forgot about Washington, who had a career day.

With a bowl game on the horizon, Northwestern must keep its secondary a strength. For most of the season, it has been a facet of the game the ‘Cats have been able to count on. If the secondary is not as strong, the entire defense suffers. No matter who they play come bowl time, it will be vital for the Wildcats to get back to the tight pass coverage we have grown accustomed to.

It’s fun to watch Northwestern football again

When rivalry week came around in 2022, many Wildcat fans were weary of a season that felt as if it had already gone on too long. Northwestern hadn’t won in months, hadn’t scored over 10 points in weeks, and was looking like one of the worst teams in all of FBS on a weekly basis. Even for the most loyal Wildcat fans, it was tough to watch. The program was having its worst season in over thirty years, so when Illinois trounced all over the Wildcats 41-3 to reclaim the hat for Champaign, it was no surprise to most.

This year, the energy was completely different entering the battle for The Land of Lincoln Trophy. After clinching bowl eligibility against Purdue, Northwestern came into its rivalry game with confidence and momentum. Positive vibes reverberated within the team and throughout the fanbase, and Northwestern fought its way to a hard-earned 45-43 victory. The game was action-packed, with all sorts of twists and turns that kept fans on the edges of their seats. It had just about anything you could imagine: tons of scoring, pick-sixes, muffed punts, controversial calls, you name it. It probably didn’t have to be so close — Northwestern had some opportunities to close it out earlier — but after last season, watching entertaining (and winning) Northwestern football is an absolute treat.