Cats upset Illinois for lone conference win
Wildcats win 5th in a row vs. Illini for 1st time in rivalry
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.”
Northwestern’s players celebrate with the Land of Lincoln Trophy after beating Illinois 29-10 in a regular-season finale Saturday in Champaign.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald picks up the Land of Lincoln Trophy after the Wildcats beat Illinois for their only Big Ten victory.