The Daily Northwestern

Football: Timely turnovers flip momentum in Northwestern’s favor against Illinois

Montre Hartage returns an interception. The sophomore's fourth quarter pick was his fifth of the season.

Montre Hartage returns an interception. The sophomore's fourth quarter pick was his fifth of the season.

Jeffrey Wang/Daily Senior Staffer

Jeffrey Wang/Daily Senior Staffer

Montre Hartage returns an interception. The sophomore's fourth quarter pick was his fifth of the season.

Ben Pope, Reporter

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Montre Hartage had been picked on all day by Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt, struggling to contain a determined passing attack that romped for 377 yards.

Then, with 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the ball dropped right into the sophomore cornerback’s midsection and he wove and cut back across the field for a 66-yard interception return, ending the game on a positive note.

It was turnovers like that — Illinois (3-9, 2-7 Big Ten) committed four, and the Wildcats (6-6, 5-4) converted all four into touchdowns — which, time after time, flipped the tide in the home team’s favor Saturday.

“We knew that turnovers were going to be a big part of today’s game, and we felt that, in order for us to be successful, we had to win that (aspect),” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Those were key turnovers across the board, big swings.”

The first turnover came early in the second quarter, when Illinois receiver Malik Turner fumbled after catching the ball. Three plays later, NU scored its third touchdown, which ultimately proved the difference in the 21-14 halftime score.

The second turnover denied the Fighting Illini an opportunity to get their own third touchdown and level that score.

Running back Reggie Corbin was fighting for extra distance inside the 10-yard line when junior linebacker Anthony Walker stripped the ball moments before Corbin’s knee touched down. A 95-yard fumble return was called back for a penalty, but the Cats’ offense still found the end zone shortly after, extending the lead to 28-14 on a massive momentum shift.

“(It was) just a regular inside zone by them,” Walker said, breaking down the play. “I fit my gap, I think (sophomore safety) Jared (McGee) came in and filled his gap and actually made the stop, and then I … reached around and got my hand on the ball.”

The third came on a punt return after Illinois had converted on NU’s lone turnover to cut the deficit to 28-21, and again cost the Fighting Illini a chance to put together a drive while trailing by only one score. Returner Darius Mosely had already dodged several tackles when he coughed up the ball on a hit from sophomore J.B. Butler, setting up a Cats touchdown drive that increased the lead to double-digits permanently.

And the fourth essentially sealed the result, with Hartage’s interception return to the 5-yard line leading to the third touchdown of the day for junior running back Justin Jackson and a 42-21 lead.

“We struggled at the beginning, and we knew we just had to keep fighting and be in the right position to make a play,” Hartage said. “I finally did and got an explosive run out of it, got exhausted and that was pretty much it.”

Given Saturday’s plus-three turnover margin, the Cats are now 4-1 this season when they record a positive turnover differential, with the lone loss coming against Illinois State — a trend not overlooked by the team.

“We always say how we want to win the turnover battle, and we did that today,” Jackson said. “It was really important for our defense to get some of those, and on special teams with J.B. (Butler) forcing that fumble. When you win the turnover battle, it makes it a lot easier on yourself.”

Twitter: @benpope111