Cats up­set Illi­nois for lone con­fer­ence win

Wild­cats win 5th in a row vs. Illini for 1st time in ri­valry

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Shan­non Ryan

NORTH­WEST­ERN 29, ILLI­NOIS 10

Illi­nois is headed to its first bowl game in five years, while North­west­ern will miss out on the post­sea­son for the first time in the same span. But none of that mat­tered on a rainy Satur­day in Cham­paign as the Wild­cats con­trolled both lines of scrim­mage, out­rush­ing the Illini 378 yards to 14 with a “four-wheel drive” of­fense that pow­ered a 29-10 vic­tory. It’s the first group of North­west­ern play­ers to beat their in-state ri­vals five years in a row, and coach Pat Fitzgerald wasn’t think­ing about this dis­ap­point­ing sea­son or any com­ing staff changes. “I’m go­ing to en­joy the (ex­ple­tive) out of this,” he said.

CHAM­PAIGN — North­west­ern play­ers hoisted the Land of Lin­coln Tro­phy on the soggy Memo­rial Sta­dium field. Groups of se­niors took turns pos­ing for pho­tos in the tun­nel lead­ing to the vis­i­tors’ locker room.

No group of Wild­cats play­ers had beaten rival Illi­nois five sea­sons in a row — un­til now.

North­west­ern’s lone Big Ten vic­tory, a 29-10 win over Illi­nois on Satur­day, was worth sa­vor­ing. It was no time to re­hash this oth­er­wise sour sea­son.

“I’m go­ing to en­joy the (ex­ple­tive) out of this,” NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Is that OK?”

Down to fourth-string quar­ter­back An­drew Marty, North­west­ern dom­i­nated the line of scrim­mage and con­trolled the clock with the “four-wheel drive” of­fense it had pre­pared for a dis­mal rainy day.

Illi­nois (6-6, 4-5 Big Ten) didn’t look like the bowl-bound team that up­set Wisconsin and Michi­gan State and was fa­vored by 8½ points. And North­west­ern (3-9, 1-8) didn’t look like the team that will miss the post­sea­son for the first time in five sea­sons.

Satur­day was more of the same in the in-state ri­valry.

“We wanted to end the sea­son on a high note,” se­nior de­fen­sive end Joe Gaziano said. “We came in with pas­sion and en­ergy. This was our last chance to step on the field to­gether.”

Both teams used backup quar­ter­backs. Illi­nois’ Matt Robin­son strug­gled in place of Brandon Peters, who was knocked out of the game last week at Iowa. Robin­son was 8 of 17 for 108 yards be­fore fresh­man

Isa­iah Wil­liams re­placed him with 6 min­utes left. Wil­liams turned the ball over on both of his se­ries.

Marty, mean­while, looked like the an­swer in his first start for North­west­ern, which had strug­gled to get pro­duc­tion from the po­si­tion all sea­son. He rushed for 110 yards and two touch­downs on 30 car­ries and com­pleted 6 of 10 passes for 55 yards with a touch­down and an in­ter­cep­tion.

It was the sec­ond straight strong per­for­mance by the red­shirt sopho­more af­ter he en­tered last week’s loss to Min­nesota and di­rected three touch­down drives.

“I saw a leader. I saw a guy who was tough, phys­i­cal,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s got to have a great off­sea­son. He’s got to op­er­ate and have a mind­set of be­ing the starter. He has to con­tinue to learn and grow as a quar­ter­back. He’s been in­cred­i­bly re­silient and tough.”

Marty said he had a blast with ev­ery carry — the most he ever has run in a game.

“I was go­ing to play ev­ery snap like it was my last,” he said. “I’ve learned so much this sea­son. Be­gin­ning of the year, I was tak­ing scout reps. To think I was go­ing to be in the sit­u­a­tion right now lead­ing these guys to win ‘The Hat,’ it’s truly a bless­ing.”

He helped lead a rush­ing at­tack that out­gained Illi­nois 378-14 on the ground, im­ple­ment­ing what Fitzgerald called his “ter­ri­ble-weather plan.”

Coco Azema, an­other for­mer scout­team player, was a safety un­til 3½ weeks ago, when Fitzgerald wanted to add late-sea­son depth at run­ning back. He gained 123 yards on just seven car­ries, seal­ing the vic­tory with a 24-yard touch­down with 1:09 to play.

Illi­nois’ de­fense en­tered as the na­tional leader with 27 take­aways but fin­ished with only one, a first-quar­ter in­ter­cep­tion by Nate Hobbs that set up Dre Brown’s 6-yard touch­down run. North­west­ern’s point to­tal was a sea­son high in con­fer­ence play af­ter av­er­ag­ing only 10.6 points in its first eight games.

Of­fen­sively, Illi­nois had mi­nus-1 rush­ing yards late in the third quar­ter, and se­nior run­ning back Reg­gie Corbin fin­ished with mi­nus-10 on seven car­ries. The Wild­cats con­trolled the clock 41:48 to 18:12.

“Dis­ap­point­ment doesn’t even seem like a strong enough word for what we did to­day,” Illini coach Lovie Smith said. “It al­ways starts up front at the line, and they dom­i­nated both ways. When­ever you can run the foot­ball like that and chew the clock … it’s not like we were do­ing a lot with the ball when we had it.”

The Illini tried to keep per­spec­tive af­ter the loss. They will be play­ing in their first bowl game since 2014.

They also were buoyed by a pregame speech from team­mate Bobby Roundtree, who waved to the crowd from his wheel­chair on the side­line at the end of the game. The stand­out de­fen­sive end had not been to Cham­paign all sea­son as he re­ha­bil­i­tates in Chicago af­ter suf­fer­ing a spinal cord in­jury in a sum­mer swim­ming ac­ci­dent.

“He’s made so much progress,” Smith said. “He’s got­ten his strength up, work­ing daily. If you saw what he does on a daily ba­sis to get him­self back here on cam­pus, you’d have to be pumped up. He’s been work­ing so hard to get back here with his team­mates, so you can imag­ine the emo­tion that’s in­volved.”

While Illi­nois’ sea­son keeps go­ing, North­west­ern’s ended.

“We haven’t made ex­cuses,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve just kept work­ing. (The win is) a great spring­board for the fu­ture.”

CHARLES REX ARBOGAST/AP

CHARLES REX ARBOGAST/AP

North­west­ern’s play­ers cel­e­brate with the Land of Lin­coln Tro­phy af­ter beat­ing Illi­nois 29-10 in a reg­u­lar-sea­son fi­nale Satur­day in Cham­paign.

CHARLES REX ARBOGAST/AP

North­west­ern coach Pat Fitzgerald picks up the Land of Lin­coln Tro­phy af­ter the Wild­cats beat Illi­nois for their only Big Ten vic­tory.

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