Whether the 'Cats (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten) win or lose, Northwestern football games are usually close by rule. But Saturday's 50-14 blowout of Illinois (2-10, 0-8) was a rare exception, giving Northwestern a break from the nail-biters that defined the season so far and possession of the Land of Lincoln trophy on the last game of the season.
Northwestern's success was thanks in part to 338 rushing yards – 127 from running back Venric Mark and 102 from quarterback Kain Colter – three passing touchdowns from Colter and three interceptions from the Wildcats secondary, all of which were converted to touchdowns.
But as hapless as Illinois looked, things started off sloppy for the 'Cats. The Illini began with the ball and scored on a 15-yard rushing touchdown from running back Donovonn Young after a 6:02 minute, 78-yard drive enabled by poor tackling. The 'Cats answered with a Jeff Budzien 44-yard field goal two minutes later and then a 2-yard touchdown run from Colter after the 'Cats recovered a fumbled Illinois kickoff at the Illini 19-yard line.
With a 10-7 lead, Northwestern linebacker David Nwabuisi intercepted a pass from Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase at the Illini 37-yard line as the first quarter expired, which led to a 9-yard touchdown pass from Colter to wide receiver Tony Jones two plays later.
After Illinois backup quarterback Reilly O'Toole scored on a 12-yard touchdown run with 10:55 left in the half, Mark answered with a 3-yard touchdown run capping off a 79-yard drive in which he rushed for 56 yards. After an Illinois punt, Budzien finished off the first half with a 36-yard field goal to give the 'Cats a 27-14 lead over Illinois.
The 'Cats began to separate themselves from Illini in both score and stature toward the end of the first half. In the second half, there was no looking back.
Northwestern started a streak of 23 unanswered points to close the game with a 15-yard touchdown pass from Colter to running back Tyris Jones 4:40 into the quarter. Then came another touchdown pass, 24 yards to offensive lineman Paul Jorgensen after an Ibraheim Campbell interception, and a 3-yard rushing touchdown from running back Mike Trumpy to give the 'Cats a 48-14 lead at the end of the 3rd quarter.
Then, things got interesting. Trevor Siemian came in but was soon replaced by third-string sophomore Zack Oliver. Tyris Jones and Trumpy led Northwestern 71 yards into reaching distance of the Illini endzone. Then, senior Bo Cisek, a 290-pound-6-foot 2-inch punt protector, was handed the ball. After losing three yards and possession of the ball on two rushing attempts, the Northwestern defense tackled Illinois running back Dami Ayoola in his own endzone, giving the 'Cats two points and a 50-14 lead with which they finished the game.
After the game was over, the 'Cats hoisted the Land of Lincoln Trophy, which will stay in Evanston for the first time in two years.
What we saw
Second half improvement
Time after time, the 'Cats have jumped out to big leads but squandered them in the second half. While there was never any doubt that Northwestern would come out on top, fans saw something they haven't seen all season: a stronger Northwestern after halftime.
"We went out there in the second half and dominated the way we should have from the start," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game.
And dominate they did. Northwestern outgained Illinois 450 to 242 in the air and on the ground, held the ball for just over 14 minutes longer and committed two penalties for 20 yards compared Illinois' eight for 88 yards. And the Wildcats did not punt once.
Illinois has floundered at the bottom of the Big Ten all season long, but even so, Northwestern's second half adjustments were encouraging for a team that has struggled so mightily on the other side of halftime for the past two years.
A milestone game
What Saturday's game lacked in excitement was made up for in history. Fitzgerald tied Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf's school record for wins a head coach with 49, Colter set a personal record for touchdown passes in a game with three and Mark's 127 rushing yards gives him eight games in which he hit the century mark in rushing yards this season.
While much of Mark's success was due in part to his elusiveness, he gave credit to his offensive line for give him the opportunity to succeed.
"The O-line has been playing phenomenally," he said after the game. "After missing the Michigan State game, I was itching to get back on the field. It just felt good to be there with my teammates."
A fond farewell to Northwestern's winningest senior class
The win over Illinois was the last game 22 Northwestern seniors – including Nwabuisi, wide receiver Demetrius Fields, offensive lineman Brian Mulroe and defensive lineman Brian Arnfelt – played at Ryan Field.
This year's five-year class won its 39th game – the most of any five-year class in school history – played in four bowls and have catalyzed Northwestern football's evolution into a perennially competitive program.
"It was great for them to win in Ryan Field one last time and get the Land of Lincoln hat back, finish strong here, and in my opinion make a bold statement, " said Fitzgerald after the game. "[The seniors] have led us to the point where we are and the kind of success we've had this year. It speaks to their leadership and it speaks to the attitude they've had approaching the season."
Colter said after the game that this senior class is the closest to him, but that he and the team focused on putting the emotions of the day behind them until the clock ran out.
"We had a business-like approach during the game but once we got that victory, you were able to see a lot of emotion from a lot of guys – especially in the locker room – knowing it was going to be the last time playing on the field [together]," he said.
However, Northwestern's season is not quite over yet.
What comes next
With the regular season over, Northwestern is headed to a bowl game. The 'Cats and their fans will know in eight days where Northwestern will play over winter break, but right now, all sign point to the 'Cats taking on either an SEC team in the TaxSlayer.Com Gator Bowl or Outback Bowl on New Year's Day with a minuscule chance of a jump to the Capital One Bowl. Check back soon for more coverage on Northwestern's bowl chances.