Final: No. 16 Northwestern 24, Illinois 14
Key play: Warren Long 18-yard rush in fourth quarter
Northwestern was in a tough spot on third-and-eight on the Illinois 34-yard line. It would’ve been too long to attempt a field goal, but Clayton Thorson threw a pick-six to Mason Monheim on the previous drive. So what did the Wildcats do? They ran the ball, but they used their big-play threat Warren Long. He gashed Illinois for 18 yards to extend the drive. Northwestern only got a field goal, but it gave the Cats a two-possession lead and it took a couple minutes off the clock instead of giving Illinois the ball back with a chance to tie the game.
Telling stat: Justin Jackson carries the ball 37 times
Pat Fitzgerald knows his team has an identity. Give the ball to the sophomore, and let him move the chains. Few have proven to be as durable as Jackson, who once again provided the difference for the Wildcats. It wasn’t a game in which he was dominant, but you look up and realize that he has 172 yards. That shows you how developed Jackson is as a back that he could not be at his best and still fall one solid run short of clipping the 200-yard mark.
-Illinois receivers dropped pass after pass
Illinois puts a lot of pressure on Wes Lunt to move the chains. Without Mikey Dudek, the Illini have lacked consistent options out wide all season, but perhaps that was most apparent on Saturday. Bill Cubit estimated that his team racked up 10 drops. That should never happen. The starting tailback also shouldn’t have double the yardage of the second-leading receiver. It’s hard for a quarterback to even target receivers when he has doubts about whether or not they can hang to easy throws. That has to be a major area of improvement for Illinois to rise above mediocrity.
-Anthony Walker is still super good, and so is T.J. Neal
I apologize if you’re sick of reading this, but how can you not be impressed with the sophomore linebacker? The guy was everywhere. He racked up 14 tackles, 3.5 of which were for a loss. There’s a reason Illinois fell short of three yards per carry, and Walker was it. The best player on one of the nation’s best defenses has to be in the All-American discussion. For Illinois, Neal actually had the better statistical day. He piled up 17 tackles, four of which for a loss. He had the unfortunate task of tackling Jackson all afternoon, which proved to be a tall task. But Neal was certainly one of the guys that prevented Northwestern from running away with it.
What it means: Illinois might be a 5-7 bowl team, Northwestern is top 15-worthy
It isn’t over yet for Bill Cubit’s group. There was a thought that Cubit needed a win on Saturday to get the Illinois job. It turned out that Cubit got a two-year deal before the game, and Illinois might actually have a chance at a bowl. We’ll have at least two 5-win bowl teams, so the Illini could be postseason-bound after all. Northwestern, meanwhile, capped off a sneaky-dominant regular season. The Wildcats had a two-week stretch in which they looked like a basement B1G team. But outside of that, few teams have more quality wins than Northwestern. It’ll be really interesting to see if the Wildcats hurdle Michigan and earn a spot in the Citrus Bowl. They certainly earned it.