Northwestern football: Grading the Wildcats' victory over Illinois
There wasn’t a whole lot to Northwestern’s 28-10 victory over Illinois on Saturday afternoon.
Northwestern came in as the better team, and they proved that as the game rolled along. Although the field was sloppy all game, the Wildcats sure were not as they closed out the regular season.
Northwestern finished 6-1 in B1G play to win the West Division for the 2nd time in 3 years. They are set to take on Ohio State, who will be heavily favored, next weekend in Indianapolis for the conference title game. If Northwestern wins that game, they will solidify their spot in a New Year’s 6 bowl. If not for a strange loss to Michigan State the previous game, we would be debating Northwestern’s chances for a College Football Playoff spot heading into the final weekend before Selection Sunday.
Regardless, it has been an incredible bounce-back season for the Wildcats, who won just 1 conference game in 2019. I pulled out my report card and graded Northwestern on all 3 phases of the game.
It was just 1 2nd-quarter possession, but Northwestern appeared to suck the life out of Illinois with their final drive of the 1st half. With 7:26 remaining, the Wildcats took over at their own 36-yard line, and 17 plays, 64 yards and 7:02 later, Cam Porter found the end zone on a 2-yard run. The Wildcats converted on 3 4th downs on the drive that put them ahead by 2 scores, 14-3.
The play-by-play announcer said something to the effect that it was the most Northwestern drive that Northwestern could ever Northwestern. Truer words have never been spoken.
Drives like this are what the Wildcats will need to keep it close next weekend against Ohio State. Long drives ending in touchdowns can keep underdogs in ballgames, and they can take the wind out of a lesser opponent, which is what we saw against Illinois.
Northwestern’s lead running back Drake Anderson fumbled on the Wildcats’ 1st play from scrimmage inside the 5-yard line, and he never saw the field again.
Freshmen Porter and Evan Hull came into this game with 18 carries combined, and they both took advantage of extra playing time. Porter saw the bulk of the carries, especially early, and rushed 24 times for 142 yards and 2 touchdowns. Hull broke off some long runs and had 149 yards on 13 carries with a score.
Peyton Ramsey played less than 3 quarters, likely just to keep him healthy for the B1G title game with Northwestern ahead 28-3. He didn’t do a whole lot, but he didn’t need to as he completed 7 of 12 passes for 82 yards and a touchdown.
Northwestern did what they’ve done all season against opposing offenses. Illinois hasn’t been able to do a whole lot on offense this entire year, and the Illini found little success on Saturday. This game was relatively meaningless for the Wildcats, who utilized backups for quite a bit of the 2nd half. That’s when Illinois did a decent amount of damage, so the numbers are a little misleading.
Even with a 46-yard touchdown pass in the 4th quarter, Illinois quarterbacks Isaiah Williams and Brandon Peters combined for 7-of-22 passing for 107 yards and a touchdown.
A moment that stood out happened early following Anderson’s fumble. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Illinois backed them up 15 yards. The Wildcats then held the Illini to a 3-and-out, which led to a missed 32-yard field goal by James McCourt. Given that Illinois made a field goal on their next possession, it’s good that Northwestern held the Illini out of the end zone despite starting out near the red zone, because converting turnovers into touchdowns are how upsets happen.
Red-zone defense will be crucial if Northwestern wants to keep it competitive with Ohio State next weekend.
Special teams: B+
Sure, why not? There wasn’t a whole lot of excitement in the special teams game. Northwestern did not attempt a field goal in this one, and all 4 extra points were made. One kickoff went out of bounds, and a punt went into the end zone, so that’s why we’ll give this unit a B+ instead of getting into the A range. In the return game, Riley Lees had 2 punt returns, and 1 went for 17 yards to help the Wildcats with field position.