Football: Record day for Leshoure leads to 48-27 loss for Northwestern at Wrigley

Colin Becht

Illinois running back tore up the Northwestern defense on Saturday, rushing for a school-record 330 yards in a 48-27 win for the Fighting Illini. (Photo by Gabriel Peal / The Daily Northwestern)

CHICAGO — When a player uses a word like embarrassing to describe his team’s play, it’s usually not a good sign.

Behind a complete collapse in rush defense and a multifaceted Illinois running attack, Northwestern(7-4, 3-4 Big Ten) fell to Illinois (6-5, 4-4) 48-27 at Wrigley Field on Saturday.

Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure set a school record with 330 yards on 33 carries and two touchdowns. Those rushing yards are also the most by a Football Bowl Subdivision player this season.

“It’s a little embarrassing,” junior defensive end Vince Browne said. “That’s not us.”

Leshoure was just one of many weapons in the Illinois ground game as quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase added 19 carries for 97 yards and running back Jason Ford gained 86 yards on 17 carries with three touchdowns.

“Pretty much everything we were calling, we executed and that’s why they were working,” Leshoure said. “Coach (Ron Zook) had a really good game plan and we executed our jobs the whole game.”

Illinois’ 519 yards on the ground exceeded NU’s total offensive yards by more than 200. Leshoure’s 341 total yards alone was more than the Cats’ 318.

“It’s just guys trying to do more than what they should and trying to strip the ball before somebody brings him down,” Browne said of the defense’s struggles with stopping the run. “Especially once we were down a little bit, I think instead of just doing your job and tackling like you know how, people were trying to strip before the guy’s on the ground.”

The NU defense was uncharacteristically poor stopping the Illini on third downs. Entering Saturday, the Cats allowed their opponents to convert on third down just 32 percent of the time. Illinois moved the chains on 10-of-17 third downs.

Illinois needed little from Scheelhaase’s arm as the freshman completed 6-of-13 passes for just 40 yards with a touchdown and a pick. NU is now 0-2 when giving up fewer than 50 yards passing including its 20-17 loss to Purdue, in which quarterback Rob Henry threw for 47 yards.

“It’s about winning the game,” Zook said. “We’re going to do whatever we have to do to win the game.”

For the Cats, redshirt freshman running back Mike Trumpy was the lone offensive highlight, amassing 129 rushing yards on 13 carries. Trumpy produced the longest run by a NU player since 1982, an 80-yard touchdown in the first quarter.

“It was just an inside zone play,” Trumpy said. “I just ran it and cut outside, and the receivers did an outstanding job blocking downfield.”

That score was part of a wild first quarter that saw 35 points scored and three major swings in momentum.

After surrendering two quick touchdowns and fumbling the ball twice on its first two possession, NU found a spark when a trick play pass from wide receiver Eddie McGee fell into the hands of junior safety Brian Peters. Peters returned the pick 60 yards for the Cats’ first points of the game.

However, NU was unable to build off the momentum of its pick-six as Leshoure broke a 70-yard run on the next play from scrimmage, setting up a five-yard touchdown run by Ford.

After an interception from redshirt freshman quarterback Evan Watkins set the Illini with the ball at the NU 15-yard line, Illinois kicker Derek Dimke pushed a 28-yard field goal wide right. Trumpy responded to the fortunate miss with a huge run down the left sideline to bring the Cats within a touchdown.

The Illini opened the scoring in the second quarter with a 45-yard field goal from Dimke, one of two converted field goals for him in the game. However, the Cats responded with 10 unanswered points to bring the game to a tie at 24-24.

After a rare three-and-out from Illinois, freshman wide receiver Venric Mark redeemed himself for an early fumble with a 58-yard punt return to the Illinois 14. The Cats were unable to make much of the great field position and had to settle for a 31-yard field goal by senior kicker Stefan Demos to make it 24-17.

On the ensuing Illinois possession, Peters came up with his second interception of the game on a deep ball to the NU 25-yard line.

That pick set up the Cats for their most balanced drive of the game, marching 75 yards for the tying score. Watkins finally found some comfort moving the ball through the air, completing 3-of-3 passes for 59 yards. Trumpy capped the drive with his second touchdown of the game, a two-yard rush to tie up the game.

The Illini responded with a drive from its own nine-yard line that resulted in a 39-yard field goal for Dimke as time expired on the half.

Illinois slowed down the pace of the game considerably after a frantic first half and dominated time of possession. The Illini possessed the ball for more than 22 of the 30 minutes in the second half, methodically marching down the field in scoring drives of seven, 13 and 14 plays.

Scheelhaase found A.J. Jenkins just across the goal line for a 10-yard completion, the only passing touchdown of the game, while Ford added two rushing touchdowns in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach for NU.

The Cats did little with the ball in the limited amount of time the Cats possessed it. Of NU’s five drives in the second half, only one resulted in points – a 25-yard field goal by Demos – and just two lasted longer than three plays.

Watkins never managed to string together consecutive successful drives and threw for only 135 yards on 10-of-20 passing with an interception. He was also unable to be a dual threat like junior quarterback Dan Persa, rushing seven times for 15 yards.

“The speed of the game was much faster,” Watkins said. “But I take credit for that. It’s my fault.”

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