The Land of Lincoln Trophy is staying in Evanston as the Northwestern Wildcats topped their in-state rival, the Illinois Fighting Illini, 42-21 on Saturday to move to 6-6 and clinch a bowl berth for the second straight year. While the ‘Cats did double up the Illini, the game was much closer than the score entails, with three key turnovers separating the sides. The Wildcats will learn their bowl fate early next week, but first let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from their win over the Illini.
Just one week after being held under 100-yards rushing, the Northwestern rushing attack broke out against the Illini, with Justin Jackson and John Moten IV combining for 301 yards on 35 carries, an 8.6 yard average. The ‘Cats’ two-headed monster at running back gashed Illinois and provided all the offense Northwestern would need, scoring five of the six Wildcat touchdowns. With Moten IV and Jackson combining for seven rushes of 10 yards or more and four runs of at least 20 yards, the ‘Cats were able to come up with big plays on the ground, pulling away each time the Illini made things close.
All season, Northwestern has struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone. The ‘Cats scored on just 73.68 percent of their red zone opportunities this season, 122nd out of 128 FBS teams, but against the Illini, the ‘Cats converted on all four of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns. Northwestern was able to create a lot of running room for Jackson and Moten IV in the red zone and Thorson made a nice play on his only touchdown pass of the afternoon, yielding 28 points in four red zone trips for the ‘Cats.
The difference in the game for the Wildcats was the four Illini turnovers, which Northwestern turned into 21 points. The ‘Cats forced three critical Illinois turnovers in Northwestern territory during the second half. Anthony Walker Jr. forced a fumble on first and goal, J.B. Butler’s forced fumble came after 19-yard punt return to midfield and Montre Hartage’s interception stopped Illinois from moving into Wildcat territory. After the ‘Cats forced the turnovers, the Northwestern offense took advantage with three key scores which ended up being the difference in the game.
For the second straight week, Northwestern’s offensive line struggled to keep Clayton Thorson upright, allowing 5.0 sacks and 2 quarterback hits. Thorson threw for a season-low 121 yards on the day as the ‘Cats couldn’t get much going through the air. It didn’t end up mattering though, as the ‘Cats were able to rush for a season-high 278 yards on the ground and improve to 4-0 when rushing for at least 150 yards. Northwestern’s offensive line finishes the regular season ranked No. 72 in the FBS in adjusted line yards, an opponent-adjusted measure of run blocking, and No. 91 in adjusted sack rate, an opponent-adjusted version of a team’s sack rate.
Northwestern’s secondary came into the season with high expectations, but injuries to Matthew Harris and Keith Watkins II decimated the unit, and on Saturday it really showed. Wes Lunt averaged 13.5 yards per completion against the Wildcats and had five completions for more than 20 yards. Illinois was able to dink and dunk across the field, gaining a season-high 377 yards through the air and playing right into Northwestern’s soft coverage. The ‘Cats defense did what it had done all season, bending but not breaking, and the three turnovers proved to be the difference in the rivalry matchup.