By Greg Mroz
Evanston, Ill – After last week’s win against Purdue, Northwestern knew that they could complete their playoffs, finish 6-6, and win whatever bowl game they got sent to. Before this game even begin Northwestern fans already envisioned how badly this team would beat their in state rival that was also fighting for bowl eligibility. Everything seemed in Northwestern’s favor.
But as the old saying goes, there is a reason why you play the games.
Behind backup quarterback Reilly O’Toole, Illinois came out firing on offense and seemingly never ceased, riding 438 yards of total offense and five takeaways to a 47-33 victory over Northwestern at Ryan Field. The win was the first for Illinois over Northwestern since 2011, who will be going to the postseason for the first time in the Tim Beckman era. For Northwestern, it was the same disappointment that the team and fans have felt all season long.
“It was a pretty somber locker room after the game.” Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They (the seniors) poured their hearts and souls into the program on a daily basis.”
Northwestern starting quarterback Zack Oliver, starting in place of the injured Trevor Siemian, threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles in his first career start. Oliver was pulled but only temporarily.
“Not good enough.” Oliver said. “Can’t win like that, that’s on me I’ve got to be better.”
Northwestern got the ball back after an Illinois three and out at the beginning of the 4th quarter, down 33-17 at that point. On 4th and 1 from the Illini 35, Justin Jackson ran a toss play to the outside for 35 yards and a touchdown. The Wildcats went for two and Zack Oliver completed a pass to Cameron Dickerson that got the score to within a possession at 33-25. Jackson finished with 130 yards on 24 carries, finishing up a strong freshman season
“Im proud of Justin” senior wideout Tony Jones said. “I’m proud of all the young guys for how they fought throughout the year.“
Despite getting within a single possession, a bad kickoff put the Illini at the Northwestern 44 yard line, and on the third play of the drive, Josh Ferguson broke a run up the near sideline for a 46 yard touchdown that made it 40-25. The score was Ferguson’s 2nd play from scrimmage that went for 40 yards or more. He finished with 132 total yards including 95 rushing yards on 15 carries.
On the next drive the Wildcats faced a 4th and 3 on their own 43, but Coach Fitzgerald elected to punt to set up Illinois inside their own 20. Illinois didn’t score on the drive but after downing a punt inside the Northwestern six yard line, Northwestern got the ball near midfield after a 35 yard completion to Justin Jackson. But Zack Oliver threw a pick six to Mason Monheim that all but sealed the victory for Illinois, making it 47-25 Illini at the time. Despite the loss, Fitzgerald is still satisfied with the state of the program.
“I’d say that we’re pretty darn close to where we want to be. “ Fitz added. “Our program is as stable and as strong as its ever been.”