EVANSTON, Ill. Never mind the rivalry game for a minute. The Northwestern Wildcats wanted to make another statement. By reaching their ninth victory of the season, the Wildcats could lock up a berth in a New Years Day bowl game.
And Northwestern responded to the challenge with a rout of its in-state rival.
Eight different players scored for the Wildcats, who reached nine victories for the first time since 2008. The next test for the Wildcats is to snap their nine-game losing
streak in bowl games.
Nine wins is a great year. Ten is special, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. To be a bowl champion could be a great exclamation point.
The Outback, Capital One and Gator bowl games have been mentioned as possibilities for the Wildcats (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten).
Were going to play on the road. Were going to play in Florida somewhere. Were going to play an SEC team in their backyard and were going to be the underdog by 75 points, Fitzgerald said, drawing laughter.
We play the best of the best. We have in the past and weve gone toe to toe with them. Its going to take our best preparation for whoever we get the privilege to play. I promise that our guys will be fired up and excited for it.
After routing Illinois (2-10, 0-8) on Saturday, the Wildcats were excited about reclaiming the Land of Lincoln Trophy. Quarterback Kain Colter said lifting the heavy, hat-shaped trophy was a workout.
Its a rivalry game, so you definitely want bragging rights, said Colter, who completed 9 of 11 passes for 102 yards and a career-high three touchdowns. He also ran for a touchdown. I havent beaten them since Ive been here, he said. We really wanted to get this one and get back on track and finish this season up right, and especially do it for our seniors.
Northwestern claimed the rivalry victory after a slow start. Illinois scored on the game-opening drive, marching 78 yards on 11 plays. The Illini later cut the lead to 24-14 on backup quarterback Reilly OTooles 12-yard touchdown run midway through the second quarter.
You look at the way we tackled early, it was pathetic and gave them some opportunities to make some plays, Fitzgerald said. But Nathan is an outstanding quarterback. They have weapons across the board and made some plays early. We felt like that was the worst half of football we played in a month, and the only way its going to get fixed is if we do something about it. Our team went out there in the second half and dominated the way we should have dominated from the start.
Northwestern was especially efficient running the ball, finishing with 338 yards on the ground. Venric Mark ran for a game-high 127 yards and a touchdown. Six players scored touchdowns on offense for the Wildcats. Jeff Budzien kicked 44- and 36-yard field goals. Hes 17 of 18 on field goals this season.
We have a motto. Its: Everybody eats, Colter said. Everybody wants a taste of the end zone. Thats one thats kind of developed since I got here. Everybodys competing. Everybody wants to get on the field.
As for defense, Northwestern forced four turnovers, including three interceptions.
After the Wildcats stressed better play in the second half, they scored early in the third quarter on Colter's 15-yard touchdown pass to Tyris Jones. Northwestern turned the game into a rout on Colters 24-yard touchdown pass to the wide-open Paul Jorgensen from Colter for a 41-14 lead.
He was lined up at left tackle and he ends up running down the field wide open, Colter said. Its a good feeling to get an offensive lineman six points. We were pretty excited about that. Its something weve repped in practice.
After another Illinois interception, Mike Trumpy scored on a 3-yard run for a 48-14 lead. Northwestern recorded a safety with 3 minutes left.
Now the Wildcats are focused on a bowl victory.
We havent gotten the job done yet, defensive end Quentin Williams said. Its hard to diagnose a problem when it goes on for that long, but I dont think we have that problem this year. I think we can finally set that legacy and do what we do out there.