By: Parker Johnson
The Northwestern Wildcats (6-6) ran rampant against instate rival Illinois (3-9) on Saturday at Ryan Field, churning out 278 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns en route to a 42-21 victory which ensured the Wildcats’ bowl eligibility.
Junior running back Justin Jackson finished with 173 yards on 21 carries, while his redshirt freshman counterpart John Moten IV recorded 128 yards of his own on just 14 carries. Jackson had three touchdowns and Moten IV had two to help the Wildcats retain the Land of Lincoln trophy.
After a slow start to the game, Northwestern began to pile up yards on its second drive. Sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson hit three different receivers for gains of at least 10 yards before Moten IV capped off the drive with his first career touchdown from 9 yards out.
After forcing Illinois to punt, Northwestern got the ball back at its own 8-yard line. Illinois looked to have intercepted Thorson, which would’ve put them within 10 yards of the tying score, but an illegal substitution penalty negated the turnover.
Instead of a game-changing play for Illinois, Northwestern kept the ball and kept it moving. After long runs by both Jackson and Moten IV, Moten IV exploded down the sideline for a 43-yard touchdown to double Northwestern’s lead with 2:22 left in the first quarter. Jackson would also score a 3-yard touchdown run to make it 21-0 before Illinois even got on the board.
Illinois did not quit, however. Down 21-0, the Fighting Illini put together back to back drives of 11 and 10 plays, respectively, before halftime. The first drive ended in a 19-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Wes Lunt to junior receiver Malik Turner, and the second resulted in an 8-yard touchdown dive from redshirt freshman tailback Reggie Corbin. The score was 21-14 at the half in favor of Northwestern.
After halftime, the Fighting Illini looked to keep their momentum from the first half alive. After forcing a three-and-out, they marched down the field at the beginning of the third quarter, making it to the Northwestern 10-yard line before Corbin coughed up a fumble, which the Wildcats pounced on. This was the second time that Illinois had a costly mistake that prevented it from potentially tying the game.
On Northwestern’s ensuing possession, Justin Jackson broke free for a 54-yard touchdown run with 9:24 left in the third quarter. During the game, Jackson moved past Darnell Autry and Tyrell Sutton into second place on the Northwestern all-time rushing yards list with 3,905 yards, trailing only Damien Anderson (4,485).
Once again, Illinois showed its fight. After the Wildcats took over after a missed field goal, Illinois senior defensive end Gimel President sacked Thorson and forced a fumble. The Illini got the ball at the Northwestern 24-yard line, and Lunt and Turner connected for their second touchdown of the day just four plays later, cutting the score to 28-21 with 4:33 left in the third quarter.
Following the pattern of the game, another costly Illinois mistake prevented them from a chance to tie the score. The Illini had forced Northwestern into a punt, and returned it for nearly 20 yards before fumbling the ball right back to the Wildcats.
Northwestern would go on to score via a 9-yard shovel pass from Thorson to junior superback Garrett Dickerson. The touchdown extended the lead to 35-21 and left Thorson in a tie for the most single season passing touchdowns in Northwestern history at 21.
And followed Dickerson’s reception, Northwestern never looked back, eventually topping the Illini, 42-21. Jackson would tack on the final touchdown of the game with 9:24 remaining, set up by a Montre Hartage interception and return to the Illinois 5-yard line.
It was both teams’ final games of the season. Coach Lovie Smith finished 3-9 in his first season with the Illini, while Northwestern moved to 6-6 with a bowl game on the horizon.