Football: Northwestern becomes bowl eligible with 42-21 rivalry win over Illinois

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Jeffrey Wang/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern players celebrate their victory over Illinois. It is the second straight year the program has captured the Land of Lincoln trophy.

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Gameday Editor


Football


Northwestern’s seniors will go out with a bowl game.

The Wildcats (6-6, 5-4 Big Ten) triumphed over in-state rival Illinois (3-9, 2-7) in a 42-21 romp on Saturday, giving the senior class a win in their final game at Ryan Field. The sixth victory locks up bowl eligibility for NU for the second consecutive season.

“Great team win, especially for our seniors,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “With everything riding on it, our rivalry, the Land of Lincoln trophy, our ability to get ourselves into the postseason, all those things just make it extra special.”

On a day honoring the Cats’ seniors, it was redshirt freshman John Moten who put NU on the scoreboard early. The running back scored his first and second career touchdowns in the first quarter, handing the Cats a quick 14-0 lead they would not relinquish the rest of the game. Moten finished the day with 128 yards on just 14 carries.

But junior Justin Jackson remained the workhorse in the backfield, toting the ball 21 times for 173 yards and three scores of his own. Along the way, Jackson moved into second on NU’s all-time rushing list, passing Darnell Autry and Tyrell Sutton, and his 27th career rushing touchdown put him past Noah Herron for sixth on the Cats’ all-time rushing scores list.

With 3,905 career rushing yards, Jackson needs just 580 more to pass Damien Anderson and become NU’s all-time leading rusher.

“It’s pretty cool; there’s been some great running backs come through here,” Jackson said of the record. “I’m glad we got a win out of it like this.”

With all that firepower on the ground, quarterback Clayton Thorson had to do relatively little. The sophomore struggled through an up-and-down performance, completing 13-of-20 passes for 121 yards while taking five sacks and losing a fumble.

Thorson still got in on the record-breaking, tying Brett Basanez for the program record for passing touchdowns in a season with 21 after shoveling a pass to junior superback Garrett Dickerson in the third quarter.
Thorson’s 20 attempts represented a season-low for the quarterback during an otherwise pass-happy year.

“It was great. It’s always fun to hand off the ball and carry out your fakes for a few steps,” Thorson said of the light workload. “As long as we’re winning I don’t care how we do it.”

NU’s defensive likewise didn’t have to do much against a hobbled Fighting Illini offense.

Illinois’ suffered a big blow early when Kendrick Foster injured himself on the third offensive play of the game. The starting running back took a handoff and immediately went to the ground without being hit, eventually being helped off the field without putting any weight on his right leg.

Foster did not return, and the Fighting Illini managed just 57 rushing yards in his absence.

Illinois also severely hampered its own cause by committing four turnovers. Three different Fighting Illini fumbled, with the Cats recovering all three loose balls, and quarterback Wes Lunt threw an interception to sophomore cornerback Montre Hartage with 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter that led to a game-sealing touchdown.

Junior linebacker Anthony Walker led the effort on defense for NU, tallying nine total tackles, two for loss and two pass breakups, and senior defensive ends CJ Robbins and Ifeadi Odenigbo each got in on the action with a sack apiece. Junior safety Godwin Igwebuike scooped a fumble for what would have been a touchdown return, but the play was called back due to an unnecessary roughness penalty.

“It always feels good to get a sack so I was real happy about that,” Robbins said. “It was good to see the d-line get active in the game.”

With the win, NU retains the hat-shaped Land of Lincoln rivalry trophy, having beaten Illinois for the second straight year. The Cats now look ahead to their bowl game; likely destinations include the Pinstripe Bowl, played Dec. 28 in New York, or the Foster Farms Bowl, played on the same day in Santa Clara, California.

“I’m excited I get one more opportunity to be with (our seniors) on the field.” Fitzgerald said. “Very thankful for them and looking forward to whatever opportunity we have here coming forward.”

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Twitter: @BobbyPillote

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