CHAMPAIGN – It was no easy task, but Northwestern’s season-long conference nightmare came to an end Saturday with a 37-34 win over Illinois. Expectations were high for the Wildcats (5-8, 1-7) coming into the season, as the team began the year ranked in the Top 25 with hopes of winning another bowl game.
Those dreams quickly evaporated once Big Ten play started, with the team suffering a string of seven consecutive losses. Winning in Champaign may not have made up for the rest of the conference schedule, but it was welcome nonetheless.
“It’s great to go out a winner. It’s a real special thing to go out with your brothers…really special to be a part of this team,” Northwestern senior linebacker Damien Proby said.
“Coach [Pat] Fitzgerald always told us winning a Big Ten game is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Good to finally get one, for sure,” quarterback Trevor Siemian added.
Siemian was the spark for Northwestern against the Illini (4-8, 1-7), accumulating 414 yards and throwing four touchdown passes. His final touchdown pass, a fade to the back of the endzone for Christian Jones, was not only an incredible pass, but proved to be the difference for the Wildcats.
Fitzgerald heaped praise on the Siemian and Jones -- who had 182 receiving yards and two touchdowns -- for their ability to break down the Illinois defense.
“Trevor is as healthy as he’s been since the Wisconsin game, and he played like the Trevor everybody expected to see. I’m incredibly proud of him,” the Northwestern coach said after the game.
“We’ve tried all year to get the ball to Christian, we’ve just had a lot of issues. We had not as many issues today, which was nice,” added Fitzgerald.
With both Illinois and Northwestern entering Saturday with records of 4-7, the in-state rivalry lacked some of the heat it had in previous years. The lackluster seasons did not diminish the play on the field, however, and both teams battled it out all game.
Siemian started strong as a force to be reckoned with on the opening drive. The junior completed five passes for 58 yards, twice converting on third down, and rushed for an additional 15 yards to get inside the Illini five-yard line. Illinois’ defense was stout, however, halting the Wildcats at the three-yard line, forcing them to settle for a 19-yard field goal from Jeff Budzien.
The NU defense forced a punt from Illinois shortly into its first drive, giving Siemian another chance to impress. The junior took the Wildcats offense down the field quickly, hitting Jones for a 27-yard touchdown. After two drives and just 7:30 of game time, Siemian was 8-for-9 with 117 yards, putting Northwestern ahead 10-0.
After being held to 19 yards in its first two possessions, Illinois finally started to make significant gains in its third possession. On the drive, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw for 25 yards and Josh Ferguson rushed for 25 yards, but a big, 12-yard sack by Dean Lowry stopped the momentum of the Illini drive. The team then failed on fourth-and-13 from the 30, with Taylor Zalewski’s 47-yard field goal sailed wide of the upright.
The Illini defense forced a three-and-out after the miss, allowing the offense to gain confidence again. Scheelhaase and Ferguson kept eating up ground through short gains and shortly into the second quarter, Illinois was on the scoreboard. The breakthrough came via a circus catch from senior Steve Hull, who fell down in the corner of the endzone but still managed to reel in the 25-yard pass from Scheelhaase.
Defense continued to play well for Illinois on the ensuing NU drive, with a seven-yard sack by freshman Dawaune Smoot helping the Illini to force another three-and-out. The defense did well late in the first half against Siemian, who threw six straight incomplete passes after having 10 completions in his first 11.
Scheelhaase built momentum for Illinois on the next drive, completing passes of 15 yards to Miles Osei and Ferguson before finding Osei for 19 yards to reach Northwestern’s one-yard line. From there, Ferguson easily scored, putting the Illini ahead 14-10 with 11 minutes to go in the first half. At the end of the first quarter, Illinois had trailed the Wildcats 171-87 in total yards; after the Ferguson touchdown, the Illini were ahead 187-164 in total yardage.
It only took the Wildcats four minutes to get the lead back, however. On the next NU drive, Siemian went 5-for-5 for 58 yards, finishing with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Dan Vitale to bring the score to 17-14 with seven minutes left in the half.
The free-flowing offense came to an end after Vitale’s touchdown, as a 51-yard field goal into the wind was all Illinois could manage. Northwestern was in the redzone quickly on its next drive thanks to a 54-yard reception from Rashad Lawrence. The Wildcats failed to crack the endzone, however, and lined up for a 22-yard field goal on fourth down. Holder Brandon Williams took the snap and reared back to throw, but his pass bounced at the feet of the receiver and Illinois took over on downs.
Fitzgerald gave Illinois credit for its great defensive presence on the fake field goal, saying, “We played a well-coached team today who had a lot of answers for the things we do.”
The half was not over after the turnover, and a three-and-out for the Illini gave Northwestern the ball back in its own half with 16 seconds left. A 22-yard pass to Lawrence put the Wildcats in field goal range again, and this time Budzien sent the ball through the uprights, giving NU a 20-17 halftime lead.
The lead did not last, as two plays into the second half Illinois was in the endzone again. Ferguson was the man for the Illini this time, rushing 55 yards through the Wildcats defense to score after just 27 seconds of play. Northwestern could not answer with a big play of its own, instead turning to Budzien for a 42-yard field goal to cut the lead to one point.
Big plays kept coming for Illinois, as Scheelhaase hit Hull with a 43-yard pass on the first play of the next Illinois drive, but the offense could not find the endzone and Zalewski was called upon for a field goal from 37 yards out to give Illinois a 27-23 lead.
The teams traded punts after the field goal, making it to the fourth quarter without much production. On the first play of the fourth quarter, however, Siemian and Lawrence hooked up again for a 23-yard touchdown. The drive, which covered 98 yards, put the Wildcats back in front, 30-27.
Illinois offense could not respond on the next drive, and a mental lapse from Scheelhaase allowed Tyler Scott to grab an interception at the Illinois 48 just five plays into the drive. The Wildcats’ offense made the most of the turnover, turning it into a seven-yard touchdown pass Siemian to a diving Jones in the back corner of the endzone, putting NU further ahead at 37-27.
The teams traded punts again before Illinois could muster up more offense. Trailing by 10, the Illini used a balanced attack to work their way 62 yards downfield, with Osei catching an 11-yard touchdown with 2:23 left on the clock.
An onsides attempt failed for the Illini, and after a first down run of 11 yards by Treyvon Green, Siemian only had to take a knee to preserve the win for NU.
“We went through a lot of obstacles this season and were able to keep focus,” Fitzgerald said of his team’s “roller coaster ride season.”
“Our focus today was to play as hard as we could for seniors. Mission accomplished,” he added.
In the other locker room, Illinois coach Tim Beckman said a lot of tears were shed because the players could not deliver a win for the seniors who gave their all for the Orange and Blue. Scheelhaase, a four-year starter, threw for 307 yards and ran for another 55, becoming the all-time leader for total offense in Illinois history, surpassing Juice Williams’ (2006-09) tally of 10,594 yards. Senior receiver Steve Hull finished the game with 155 yards receiving for his fourth consecutive 100-yard game.
“You always want to win your last football game. But we didn't last year and we got this football team better,” Beckman said. “The seniors and coaching staff challenged the younger players to make this program better…In every aspect of this program, we're better.”
Fitzgerald had a similar sign-off for his team, asserting that his team may have been down, but they were never out.
“We’ve earned and deserved any and all criticism,” he said. “We will be back, I’ll promise you that.”