By Kevin Sweeney
The Hat is staying home again.
On a day in which Northwestern finally learned who its Big Ten Championship Game opponent will be, the Wildcats handled business with a 24-16 win at home against in-state rival Illinois and kept the Land of Lincoln trophy for the fourth consecutive year.
It was a game in which Northwestern was in control the entire way, but the Wildcats took their foot off the gas after taking a 24-6 lead in the third quarter, resulting in plenty of nervy moments late. As Northwestern gradually removed Isaiah Bowser, Clayton Thorson, and others from the game in order to give its reserves some run, the Illini began mounting a comeback.
The Fighting Illini grabbed a field goal and a touchdown on consecutive possessions in the fourth, while Pat Fitzgerald stuck with TJ Green over Thorson in a critical drive with Northwestern leading by just 8. After the Wildcats went three-and-out, Illinois got the ball back and was driving, but redshirt-senior quarterback AJ Bush’s pass from the red zone was intercepted by linebacker Paddy Fisher, and the Wildcats were able to burn the rest of the clock on offense.
It was certainly a questionable strategy to leave Thorson and Bowser on the sidelines despite the game pressure suddenly being applied by the Illini, especially given Fitzgerald’s previous comments about the importance of this game. However, it is important to note that the game had no meaning in the grand scheme of things, with Northwestern’s spot in the Big Ten Championship already secured and no College Football Playoff berth to compete for.
Taking on an Illinois defense rated as one of the nation’s worst in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings, the Wildcats looked sharp on offense for much of the way. Thorson was sharp when his number was called, completing 12 of his 17 pass attempts for 110 yards and a pair of touchdowns before yielding to redshirt-junior TJ Green in the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, Northwestern went back to the run-heavy attack they have put on display the last several weeks, posting a whopping 261 yards on the ground. Bowser set the tone for what would be a controlling performance with a 55-yard run on the Wildcats’ first play from scrimmage. The true freshman running back posted 18 carries for a career-high 166 yards despite receiving just six touches in the second half, as Northwestern worked veterans Chad Hanaoka, John Moten IV, and Jelani Roberts into the ball-carrying mix.
On the other side of the ball, a Wildcat defense missing several key cogs continued to bend but not break, aided by several dropped passes by the Illinois receivers. Northwestern was once again without cornerbacks Montre Hartage and Trae Williams, safety Jared McGee and linebacker Nate Hall in this one, and it showed. Bush cut up a Wildcat defense that played soft coverage all night, but when the Illini got into the red zone, the Northwestern defense stood tall to allow just one touchdown in five tries.
The win caps a banner regular season for the Wildcats, who join Alabama, Clemson, and Oklahoma as the only teams with 15 wins in their last 16 conference games. Northwestern won all six divisional games this season for the first time in program history.
Northwestern still has a massive task this coming weekend in Indianapolis, as the team will take on Ohio State Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium with a spot in the Rose Bowl on the line. The Buckeyes clinched the Big Ten East after dominating Michigan 62-39 behind 318 yards and 5 touchdowns from dynamic quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Matt McHugh, Tim Hackett, Ari Levin, and Kevin Sweeney will have all the coverage from Indianapolis on WNUR Sports.