Football: Northwestern falters in season finale against Illinois, fails to qualify for bowl game


Nathan Richards/Daily Senior Staffer

Jarrell Williams can only look on as Illinois celebrates another touchdown. The junior cornerback wasn’t able lift a defense depleted by injuries in Northwestern’s 47-33 defeat at the hands of Illinois.

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor

A bizarre, tumultuous and ultimately disappointing season came to a fitting end Saturday at Ryan Field.

With bowl eligibility on the line, Northwestern (5-7, 3-5 Big Ten) fell flat and lost, 47-33, to in-state rival Illinois (6-6, 3-5) in the final game of the season. The 5-7 finish is the second in a row for the Wildcats and the second consecutive year in which they have not qualified for postseason play, after playing in a bowl game the previous five years.

“It hurt,” senior receiver Tony Jones said. “It hurt to not be able to go out with a win.”

Decimated by injuries, NU struggled in nearly every aspect of the game. Junior quarterback Zack Oliver was ineffective in replacing injured senior Trevor Siemian, who could only look on helplessly from the sidelines in his final game in purple.

Oliver finished 23-38 for 221 yards and a touchdown with three interceptions and two fumbles. Despite some flashes of brilliance in the second half, his performance wasn’t nearly enough to put the Cats in a position to win.

“I don’t think you can ever be too prepared,” Oliver said, evaluating his play. “It came down to execution, and I didn’t execute to the best of my ability.”

In Oliver’s defense, it didn’t help that seniors receiver Kyle Prater and offensive tackle Jack Konopka, both usual starters, were also among those injured and reduced to spectators on Saturday.

On defense, NU trotted out a patchwork secondary with disastrous results. Starting junior defensive backs Nick VanHoose and Traveon Henry were out along with contributing redshirt freshmen Godwin Igwebuike and Marcus McShepard.

That left backup safety and redshirt freshman Kyle Queiro to start at cornerback, and forced senior linebacker Jimmy Hall to play safety with junior Drew Smith sliding into the starting linebacker spot. Junior Jarrell Williams was pressed into his first regular defensive action of the season as the nickel cornerback.

“I’m not sure what you can do differently in games when guys get beat up,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I think it’s just a little bit of bad luck.”

The Cats had trouble adjusting to the musical chairs, with the defense often struggling to line up and blowing assignments on several big gains by the Fighting Illini. NU also had no depth to speak of, and that combined with a poor offensive half left the defense gassed for most of the game.

It showed up in the box score, with Illinois quarterback Reilly O’Toole completing 17 of 28 passes for 147 yards and three touchdowns, and matching that number on the ground on 21 carries to lead the Fighting Illini in rushing. Running back Josh Ferguson chipped in 95 yards and two touchdowns of his own to give Illinois 438 yards of total offense on the day.

“It is what it is,” Fitzgerald said. “(Injuries) limited some of the things we could call today.”

Special teams seemed to be the saving grace for the Cats, with freshman running back Solomon Vault returning a kickoff for a touchdown to keep NU within striking distance in the first half, but even that aspect of the game eventually faltered.

Jones, a hero last week against Purdue with a punt return touchdown, returned to his old ways and fielded just one of the Fighting Illini’s five punts. The one kick he caught was a bizarre spectacle in which Jones turned his back to the coverage, fielded the ball on a bounce and immediately took a knee.

Questionable decision-making also once again haunted Fitzgerald, with the coach electing to punt on a fourth-and-three near midfield with NU trailing by 15 early in the fourth quarter. The cautious choice was a reflection of a team that, injuries aside, looked nothing like the squad that shocked Notre Dame just two weeks ago.

For a team that many thought would recover from 2013’s injury-riddled campaign, another bowlless season is a disappointing result. With a team that looks worse on paper for 2015, it’s unclear how the Cats will move forward.

“As I look at where our program is at right now, I have to look at everything,” Fitzgerald said, “It starts with me, and that process will take time.”

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