Rapid Recap: No. 19 Northwestern 24, Illinois 16

Northwestern+receiver+Riley+Lees+tries+to+evade+an+Illinois+defender+during+the+first+half+of+Saturday%27s+game.+NU+took+a+big+lead+at+halftime+and+held+on+to+win.
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Rapid Recap: No. 19 Northwestern 24, Illinois 16

Northwestern receiver Riley Lees tries to evade an Illinois defender during the first half of Saturday's game. NU took a big lead at halftime and held on to win.

Northwestern receiver Riley Lees tries to evade an Illinois defender during the first half of Saturday's game. NU took a big lead at halftime and held on to win.

Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern receiver Riley Lees tries to evade an Illinois defender during the first half of Saturday's game. NU took a big lead at halftime and held on to win.

Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern receiver Riley Lees tries to evade an Illinois defender during the first half of Saturday's game. NU took a big lead at halftime and held on to win.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Copy Chief

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It’s just never easy with this group, but the Wildcats keep finding ways to win.

Northwestern (8-4, 8-1 Big Ten) scored two touchdowns in the final four minutes of the first half and held on from there to beat rival Illinois 24-16, winning the Land of Lincoln Trophy for the fourth straight year.

Freshman running back Isaiah Bowser had another huge day, rushing for 166 yards on 18 carries. He ripped off a 55-yard gain on NU’s first offensive play to help set up a touchdown pass from senior quarterback Clayton Thorson to junior receiver Bennett Skowronek.

The Fighting Illini (4-8, 2-7) moved the ball well in the middle of the field throughout the first half, but the Cats’ defense repeatedly stiffened in the red zone to hold Illinois to field goals. Thorson would account for two more touchdowns in the first half, one on a quarterback sneak from a yard out and one on a five-yard pass to sophomore receiver Riley Lees.

NU rested Thorson, Bowser and others in the fourth quarter, spreading the ball to a variety of backs and receivers. The Cats’ offense struggled in the second half, not scoring after their first drive of the third quarter, and Illinois rallied back to cut the deficit to one score.

But sophomore linebacker Paddy Fisher made a massive interception in the red zone with 3:34 to play, and NU was able to run out the clock from there.

Takeaways:

1. Thorson is finally at full strength again. The Cats’ senior signal-caller didn’t get a lot of chances to throw Saturday, but he was efficient, completing 12-of-17 passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns before resting in the second half. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said Thorson had been ill for games against Notre Dame and Iowa, but he completed 15 of 21 passes against Minnesota last week and played well again on his Senior Day.

2. The secondary badly needs to get healthy. Illinois quarterback A.J. Bush doesn’t have spectacular numbers throwing the ball, but he and receivers Ricky Smalling and Sam Mays had their ways at times against NU’s defense. The Cats are missing three starters in the secondary — senior cornerback Montre Hartage, junior cornerback Trae Williams and senior safety Jared McGee — and will need them to recover quickly for the Big Ten Championship Game next week.

3. Northwestern will have an uphill battle next Saturday. Ohio State put up 62 points against what had previously been the No. 1 defense in the country, beating rival Michigan 62-39 earlier on Saturday in Columbus. NU will face the Buckeyes next Saturday in Indianapolis, and will need to excel in all phases of the game to dethrone the two-time defending conference champions. The defense has been the Cats’ strongest unit lately, and NU will look for a strong performance from that group to have a chance of winning.

Email: benjaminrosenberg2021@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @bxrosenberg

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