In a sequence of events few would have seen coming after an embarrassing loss to Duke in the second week of the season, NU won its final seven games to finish 9-3, and has a chance to win 10 games in a season for just the fourth time in program history in an upcoming bowl game. If the 'Cats get that tenth win, it would be their third time in seven seasons to reach that mark.
On an unseasonably warm day in Champaign, Illinois, No. 22 Northwestern (9-3, 7-2 B1G) cruised to a 42-7 win over the hapless Illinois Fighting Illini (2-10, 0-9 B1G) to capture its third straight Land of Lincoln trophy.
NU picked a good time to have one of its shakiest first halves of the season in that, they did so against a pretty mediocre Illinois team. Though the 'Cats moved the ball with relative ease, Clayton Thorson threw a deflating interception on a drive that would have tied the game at seven (Illinois had scored on a 12-play drive on its first possession of the game).
Things seemed even more tenuous when NU allowed two first half kick returns out to near midfield. Fortunately for the 'Cats, their dominant defense was up to the task (sans the first drive). The Illini were forced to punt on each subsequent drive (aside for one turnover on downs), which gave the offense ample time to figure itself out.
NU actually did tie the game at seven early in the second quarter, capping off a six-play drive with an 11-yard Thorson toss to Garrett Dickerson. NU took the lead on the very next drive, after Bennett Skowronek hauled in a 52-yard bomb to set up a five-yard scoring scamper by Jelani Roberts.
The offense continued its inconsistencies out of halftime, but the defense, fittingly, picked up the slack. On Illinois' second possession of the second half, Joe Gaziano stripped the ball from Illini QB Cam Thomas. Samdup Miller recovered for NU and crawled into the end zone to put NU up 21-7, which in many ways felt like the nail in the proverbial L O L Hat coffin.
If anybody could get NU's offense out of a funk, it would be Justin Jackson. The senior, in his last regular season game for Northwestern, broke off a 79-yard run, the longest of his career, in the third quarter to set up a one-yard touchdown run by, of course, himself. That touchdown also gave him 39 on his career, which broke the school record previously held by Damien Anderson. That made it 28-7, and the rout was officially on.
Jeremy Larkin tacked on a rushing touchdown, as did Jesse Brown, but this one was over long before the clock reached zero. NU dominated in virtually every category, outgaining U of I 446-239, including a 306-100 margin on the ground. Jackson finished with 144 yards in his penultimate game as a Wildcat, while Larkin quietly tallied 71.
NU's bowl destination will be determined next weekend, but it promises to be befitting of its in some ways shockingly, and in some ways not shockingly at all, impressive record.