Coach Pat Fitzgerald walked into the Nicolet Football Center after Saturday’s 27-10 win over Illinois holding the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk trophy.
The 63-year old trophy will stay in Evanston for good. Northwestern’s senior class made sure of it.
“To finish with a win on senior day against our in-state rival for the last opportunity to play for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk trophy,” Fitzgerald said. “I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
The senior class made play after play in arguably the team’s most complete game of the season, making sure they walked off Ryan Field for the last time as winners.
The Wildcats (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten) dominated the Fighting Illini in every facet of the game – outgaining the Big Ten’s top offense, containing dual-threat quarterback Juice Williams, busting a big return on special teams and winning the turnover battle – to go 1-0 for the ninth time this season.
“It was a great team win,” Fitzgerald said. “I think this may have been our best performance of the year.”
The all-around performance started with senior quarterback C.J. Bachér, who completed 22-of-33 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns.
Bachér orchestrated a 13-play, 77-yard scoring drive on the Cats’ second possession of the game, which resulted in a one-yard touchdown run by sophomore Stephen Simmons. NU took an early 6-0 lead after senior kicker Amado Villarreal missed the extra point.
On the Cats’ next possession, Bachér went 4-of-5 for 42 yards, moving his offense down the field at will.
Facing third-and-eight inside the Illinois (5-7, 3-5) red zone, Bachér rolled out, evaded pressure and looked as if he would run out of bounds. Instead, he stopped and threw a wobbling pass across his body in the back of the end zone to senior wide receiver Ross Lane.
“That’s something that doesn’t happen very often,” Lane said. “C.J.’s always told never to throw it like that. It was just a fun play. It got a little momentum going.”
Still, Bachér’s gutsy performance gives him back-to-back signature wins, cementing his legacy at NU. Lane caught six passes for 57 yards and a score, moving him into third place all-time on NU’s career receiving yardage list.
After the Lane touchdown reception, NU went into halftime ahead 13-0. Illinois scored on its first possession of the second half, and the teams traded field goals to make the score 16-10.
After the defense forced a three-and-out on Illinois’ first drive of the fourth quarter, Anthony Santella booted a 45-yard punt that was fielded by Brendan Smith. The junior safety caught the ball at the Illinois 29-yard line, let his wall blocking scheme set up, and darted down the right sideline for 51 yards.
“They gave me a seam, and I tried to take advantage of it,” Smith said. “We definitely needed a big return.”
Smith’s return to the Illini 20-yard line set up Bachér’s second passing touchdown of the game. The gunslinger found senior wide receiver Eric Peterman on a post corner for an 18-yard touchdown strike.
“It’s just a basic smash concept, and every team in America runs it,” Peterman said. “We were just attacking their weak spots.”
Peterman caught a season-high eight passes for 111 yards and a touchdown and is fourth in career receiving yardage in school history.
Down by 14 points with about nine minutes left in the game, Illinois began a methodical drive down the field. As the Illini reached midfield, they ran into a ferocious defense led by senior defensive end Kevin Mims.
On third-and-10, Mims provided a bull rush up the middle and pounced on Williams for the sack. He forced a fumble on the play that was recovered by sophomore linebacker Quentin Davie. Six plays later, Villarreal kicked a 24-yard field goal to provide the final margin and put the game out of reach.
Mims played his best game of the season and one of the best of his career. To go along with his forced fumble, the senior added seven tackles and 2.5 sacks.
“It’s fun,” Mims said. “It’s really fun to see the senior class – we’ve been here for four years together – succeed.”
University officials announced Friday that the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk will be retired as Illinois attempts to remove Native American imagery from its athletics. The teams will decide on a new rivalry trophy next year.
Shortly after Fitzgerald walked off the podium holding the trophy, Mims gave junior safety Smith a bear hug, displaying the tight-knit familial qualities that the 2008 Cats showed throughout the season.
“It’s awesome,” Smith said of the seniors going out as winners. “They deserve it. We played for them.”