Northwestern seniors leave with a win as Wildcats down Illinois

Rohan Nadkarni, Gameday Editor

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CHAMPAIGN — Northwestern’s 2013 season lacked many things.

At times, it lacked healthy players, aggressive play calling and a competent offense among other issues.

The season also lacked smiles.

But they finally returned Saturday, as the Wildcats (5-7, 1-7 Big Ten) knocked off in-state rival Illinois (4-8, 1-7) 37-34 for their first conference win of the season — and the last for the senior class.

The win also means NU keeps the Land of Lincoln hat for the second straight season.

“This year, this squad really developed a lot of character,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “The senior class went through a lot of obstacles. They were able to continue to stay focused, and continue to fight on. We’re thankful for them, and wish them nothing but the best.”

After the game, players wore their emotions — relief, joy, nostalgia — on their sleeves.

Senior linebacker Damien Proby smiled and joked about his poor catching skills. Senior defensive end Tyler Scott coyly admitted to not being 100 percent sure his interception was a catch. Junior wide receiver Christian Jones laughed and sheepishly admitted to having a “flashback” when the Fighting Illini scored a late touchdown to pull within 3.

Everyone could smile, because NU left the season a winner.

“I’m happy to finally be up here at this moment,” Proby said. “It’s a real special thing to be with your brothers in the locker room, to see the smiles on the faces. We know this is going to be our last game for quite some time, so we just had to embrace the moment.”

Junior quarterback Trevor Siemian especially embraced the moment, playing by far his best game of the season. Siemian threw for 414 yards and 4 touchdowns, zipping the ball all over the field.

The game came as redemption for the junior, who faced criticism throughout the season for his erratic play. Fitzgerald revealed Siemian played with a heel problem through every game after sustaining the injury late against Wisconsin. To his credit, Siemian declined to use the injury as an excuse for his play after the game.

“It’s been frustrating,” Siemian said of the up-and-down season. “But as a team, it’s been good for us to learn and grow. You only get better from experiences like this.”

The quarterback’s favorite targets Saturday were Jones and senior wide receiver Rashad Lawrence. Jones finished the game with 13 catches for 182 yards and 2 scores. Lawrence had five catches for 112 yards and a touchdown of his own.

Jones made the biggest play of the game, with a diving catch in the right corner of the end zone to give the Cats a 37-27 lead in the fourth quarter.

“He threw me the ball and I caught it, you can never really predict these games,” Jones said. “I knew I caught it. I thought I had a touchdown, as soon as they did the signal I was very excited.”

The game was certainly in question before Siemian’s connection with Jones. The teams combined for four lead changes and a tie from the second quarter onward. NU started strong with the game’s first 10 points, before the offense stalled for a brief stretch.

Illinois stormed back and eventually took a 17-14 lead in the second quarter.

Fitzgerald even tried to kick start his team with some trickery. Down near the goal line with the game tied at 17, Fitzgerald called for a fake field goal in the second quarter. Senior punter Brandon Williams took the snap and rolled out right, but couldn’t connect with sophomore superback Dan Vitale.

But a late field goal by senior kicker Jeff Budzien gave the Cats a 20-17 edge heading into the break. After trading more scores, NU finally pulled away on Jones’ clutch catch.

Noticeably missing from the game was senior quarterback Kain Colter, who was hurt early in the team’s loss against Michigan State. Colter’s absence drew a lot of emotion from his head coach and teammates.

“He’s meant so much for the program,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t want to sit here and cry in front of you, but he’s a young man that’s what’s right about college football. Our team is really going to miss Kain.”

Jones, whose caught passes from Colter during his entire NU career, also felt the quarterback’s absence.

“I couldn’t stop telling him I love him,” Jones said. “I’m going to miss him a lot. I was really mad he couldn’t play today. I kept telling him I love him, I’m really sad to see him go.”

Ultimately, the day belonged to all of the program’s 14 seniors. They graduate having contributed to the school’s first bowl in over five decades, as well bringing “College GameDay” and a national spotlight to Evanston.

Proby described his mental state before his final game.

“I’ve been playing since the age of 7, now I’m 22. The majority of your life I’ve been playing this wonderful sport. The next step for anyone is a mystery,” he said. “How would you feel if something was essentially taken away from you?

Scott was happy to leave with a win.

“This is what we wanted to do,” Scott said. “Just to leave on a high note, the season didn’t turn out the way we wanted, (but) we never gave up. We fought to the end, that’s the thing I’m going to remember the most.”

Now, the attention turns to next season, and expectations are in flux after a down year. Fitzgerald insisted that he always blocked out the critics, and repeatedly noted that if 5 or 6 plays went the other way, the tenor of the entire year could have been different.

Siemian, Jones, Vitale and a host of other playmakers will return in 2014 when the Big Ten will also welcome two new teams.

Fitzgerald remained confident in the direction of his program moving forward.

“No team in the country got socked in the gut more than these guys did. They got knocked down and they kept getting up,” Fitzgerald said. “So we’ll be back. We have earned and deserved any and all criticism as a coaching staff and as a program that’s comes along with not being where we belong.

“We will be back, I promise you that. We will be back.”

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