It wasn’t pretty, and neither was the season. But in its last game of the season, needing a win to become bowl-eligible, Northwestern (6-6, 5-4 B1G) outlasted in-state rival Illinois (3-9, 2-7), rushing for 278 yards en route to a 42-21 victory.
Redshirt freshman John Moten IV got the ‘Cats off to a hot start with two first quarter rushing touchdowns, the first two of his career. Moten had seldom been used this season, but after rushing for 119 yards on 16 carries against Purdue, the young runningback impressed with 14 carries for 128 yards and two TDs on Saturday.
It looked like NU would coast to victory after building an early 21-0 lead, but due to a mixture of penalties, turnovers, defensive lapses, poor offensive line play and questionable decisions by quarterback Clayton Thorson, the Wildcats let lowly Illinois back into the game.
But junior running back Justin Jackson wouldn’t let his team give up the desired Land of Lincoln Trophy (otherwise known as HAT). The seasoned veteran built off Moten’s early success, rattling off a 54-yard TD rush and totaling 21 carries for 173 yards and three TDs. Jackson also passed Darnell Autry for third all-time in NU career rushing yards. It’s hard to describe how valuable Jackson was today, and just how important he’s been to NU his whole career. It’s plays like this, which look to be going nowhere, that Jackson consistently turns into positive yardage and touchdowns.
Beyond NU’s rushing attack, there wasn’t much to celebrate. At times, the Wildcats were simply outplayed by an inferior Illinois team. They struggled to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, they made costly mistakes and they just weren’t consistent – it was a microcosm of NU’s entire season.
The win caps off a rollercoaster season for the Wildcats, and the 6-6 record shows NU’s inconsistency. At times, NU was difficult to watch, as its offense sputtered in embarrassing, ugly losses to Illinois State and Minnesota. But some weeks NU’s offense exploded, and the ‘Cats were hard to stop in shootout wins at Iowa and Michigan State.
From week to week, this team was impossible to predict – we just didn’t know which version of NU would show up. Accordingly, it was a really weird season.
Compared to last season, Thorson tripled his passing touchdown total, from seven to 21. After being used sparingly last season, Austin Carr is within range of breaking all of NU’s single-season receiving records, and might win the award for best receiver in the country. NU scored seven points in a home game against Illinois State, and less than a month later, dropped 38 and 54 on the road against Iowa and Michigan State. None of it makes any sense.
But regardless of how they got there, the ‘Cats are bowl-eligible. Last week’s ESPN bowl projections had either a Pinstripe Bowl meeting (in New York) with Pittsburgh or a Foster Farms Bowl matchup (in San Francisco) against Stanford. NU has won only two of the 12 bowl games (1948 Rose Bowl and 2013 Gator Bowl) it has played in, and despite a mediocre regular season, a bowl victory would make the season a successful one.