Football: Northwestern’s defense shuts down Illinois in lopsided win


Allie Goulding/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior defensive tackle Jordan Thompson and senior tackle Tyler Lancaster smother Illinois running back Dre Brown. The Wildcats’ defensive front dominated Illinois on Saturday.

Cole Paxton, Copy Chief


CHAMPAIGN — Illinois’ first drive against Northwestern on Saturday was a strong one. Freshman quarterback Cam Thomas led his team down the field, then finished it off with a 23-yard touchdown scamper.

Unfortunately for the Fighting Illini, they never replicated it.

Instead, the No. 22 Wildcats (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten) put on a thorough defensive beatdown, holding Illinois to 239 total yards and the one first-quarter score, rolling past the Fighting Illini (2-10, 0-9) in a suffocating 42-7 victory at Memorial Stadium.

“Our defense was absolutely dominant,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It’s two weeks in a row. And it starts up front. That group, again, today, was just absolutely outstanding.”

The highlight came in the third quarter, when sophomore defensive end Joe Gaziano sacked Thomas near the goal line and forced a fumble. Freshman defensive end Sam Miller then scooped up the ball and lunged into the end zone, extending NU’s lead to 21-7.

The score was the first defensive touchdown for the Cats in more than two years. It also represented a “momentum play,” Fitzgerald said, as NU’s sideline erupted and the Cats then scored on three of their next four possessions to pull far away their in-state rivals.

“I’m really happy (Miller) got in the end zone and got the touchdown,” Gaziano said. “It’s one we’ve been missing all year as a statistic, that defensive touchdown. I was happy to be a part of it.”

Nearly every possession was a strong one for NU’s defense. Illinois had nearly as many three-and-outs — six — as points, and cobbled together only three drives that lasted more than two minutes.

Containing Thomas was a significant part of that success. The dual-threat quarterback burned the Cats for 44 yards on the ground on the opening drive, but finished with just 46 yards on 18 carries. It was an impressive mark for an NU defense that struggled mightily with mobile quarterbacks early in the season.

“We held our edges and held our gaps,” Gaziano said. “When he tried to run up the middle we keyed in on him, so it’s easier to fill our gaps and play technically sound.”

The Cats also racked up a pair of interceptions, including the first of redshirt freshman Paddy Fisher’s career, which led to a touchdown. The defensive performance was the third straight strong one for NU, and the second straight sublime one — the Cats shut out Minnesota 39-0 last week.

Among the deluge of superlatives for the defense, senior defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster called it “amazing” that the Fighting Illini never ran a play inside NU’s 20-yard line.

“That first drive, I feel like it was just first-drive jitters,” Lancaster said. “Then we got it out. We got it over with. We stayed calm. Then we imposed our will for the rest of the game.”

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