Takeaways: Northwestern grabs sixth-straight hat

By Brea Lassek

Northwestern defeated Illinois 28-10 Saturday, keeping the Land of Lincoln Trophy in Evanston for a sixth-consecutive year. Here are my five main takeaways from the Wildcats’ last regular season game:

1. The Run Game

After three consecutive games with less than 100 rushing yards, Northwestern ran for 411 yards Saturday, the Wildcats’ most in a game since earning 444 yards on the ground against Illinois in 2003. Redshirt first-year Evan Hull and true first-year Cam Porter led the effort, rushing for 149 and 142 yards respectively. Porter scored two touchdowns and awakened the run game in the first quarter with a 31-yard dash. Fitzgerald credited the offensive line for winning the “six-inch war” and recovering from its struggles against Michigan State. 

2. Fourth-down Conversions

With windy and slippery conditions discouraging special team play, Northwestern’s offense converted 5-of-7 on fourth down, the most in Pat Fitzgerald’s time at NU. Three of those conversions occurred during a 17-play scoring drive late in the second quarter. Hull not only converted a fourth down in the third quarter but rushed for a 32-yard touchdown, extending Northwestern’s lead to 28-3. Graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey said Fitzgerald’s continued go-ahead attitude on fourth downs throughout the season has given the offense confidence to execute.

3. #littlebrother

Illinois senior linebacker Milo Eifler opened up rivalry week by calling Northwestern the Fighting Illini’s “little brother” during a press conference Tuesday. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said the comment was “not taken too kindly in our locker room.” The “little brother” has outscored Illinois 189-78 in its last six meetings and amassed almost 500 total yards of offense Saturday against Eifler’s defense. Eifler also said he didn’t know “where Evanston even is.” Assuming Eifler is as good at geography as trash-talking, I’ll simplify the answer for him: It’s where the Hat trophy will stay for the sixth-year in a row.

4. Sluggish Starts

One area of concern emerging from Saturday’s win was yet another slow start from Northwestern’s offense, failing to score in the first quarter and fumbling on its first drive of the game at its own 20-yard line. Although the Wildcat defense prevented Illinois from capitalizing, the early mistake was reminiscent of Kyric McGowan’s muffed punt return against Iowa. Northwestern went on to overcome a 17-point deficit to defeat the Hawkeyes, but a similar start will not be as easy to recover from against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game.

5. Zero Positive COVID-19 Tests 

The Wildcats finished the regular season without a single player or coach testing positive for Covid-19 since daily antigen testing began in September. Throughout the season, Fitzgerald repeatedly stressed going 1-0 every week against their opponents, both on and off the field. Northwestern’s only cancelled contest was a result of an outbreak at Minnesota. During a season worth celebrating, the Wildcats’ victory thus far against Covid-19 speaks to their discipline and senior leadership in limiting social interactions outside the team.

Northwestern is set to meet No. 4 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game next Saturday. Stay tuned into WNUR Sports’ coverage all week long and listen to our broadcast of the game with kick-off slated for 11 a.m. Central Time.