Football: Northwestern rests stars in second half, holds on to edge Illinois


Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior defensive end Joe Gaziano hoists the Land of Lincoln Trophy among his teammates after Northwestern’s 24-16 win over rival Illinois at Ryan Field on Saturday.

Ben Pope, Gameday Editor


Northwestern has yet to play a game this season decided by more than 14 points, and coach Pat Fitzgerald did everything he could in Saturday afternoon’s Senior Day game to ensure that streak would stay alive.

Fitzgerald — with clearly one eye and maybe more on next week’s Big Ten Championship game against Ohio State — stuck to a pre-established yet undisclosed strategy of resting his skill position players during much of the second half, allowing rival Illinois to nearly rally back from a big deficit.

The No. 19 Wildcats (8-4, 8-1 Big Ten) nevertheless survived for a 24-16 win over the Fighting Illini (4-8, 2-7), despite leading by a far-more-decisive 24-6 margin early in the third quarter.

“With the limited ability that I allowed our coordinators to have, I knew it might be a little bit closer game than one would think,” Fitzgerald said. “(Offensive coordinator Mick McCall and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz) did a good job, but I tied their hands a little bit, so to speak. … You should’ve heard the headphones: ‘Hey I want…,’ ‘No;’ ‘Hey can I…,’ ‘No;’ ‘But what about…,’ ‘No.’”

A number of usual stars, including receiver Flynn Nagel, linebacker Nate Hall and three starters in the defensive secondary, missed the game entirely with injuries. The hosts started slowly as a result, and — by midway through the second quarter — led only 7-6 with a 193-80 deficit in total yards.

A two-touchdown outburst in the final four minutes before halftime, however, gave NU the breathing room it needed. Freshman running back Isaiah Bowser, who had broken through with a career-long 55-yard carry on the team’s first play from scrimmage, continued to gash Illinois’ defense up the middle, and senior quarterback Clayton Thorson made several long completions in a ruthless two-minute drill.

But Bowser was pulled from the game after the Cats’ first possession of the second half, cutting short his spectacular 18-carry, 166-yard performance, and Thorson didn’t see the field after the end of the third quarter. The signal-caller ended up competing 12 of 18 pass attempts — to 10 different targets — for 110 yards and three touchdowns (one rushing) in his final Ryan Field outing.

Thorson said he wasn’t aware he wouldn’t be playing the full 60 minutes until the middle of the game.

“(Fitzgerald) didn’t inform the team at any time; our position coaches just let us know as the game was going along,” he said. “I always want to play, that’s never going to change. I think if a guy didn’t want to play, that would be a mistake on his part. But I was just doing what the coaches told me to do.”

Once backup quarterback T.J. Green and senior running back Solomon Vault (five carries for seven yards) took the reins, NU’s offense abruptly transformed from efficient to hapless, and the Fighting Illini attack — which had moved the ball well all day but continuously stalled in the red zone — seemingly found the momentum for which it had yearned.

First, Illinois quarterback A.J. Bush (23-for-39 for 281 yards) found receiver Ricky Smalling (seven catches for 72 yards) in the end zone. Then the Illinois defense easily forced a three-and-out by the Cats. Then Bush led the Illini back into the red zone with four minutes to play, trailing by only a touchdown and two-point conversion.

The team destined to receive the Land of Lincoln Trophy in postgame ceremonies seemed truly in question for the first time since 2015, and the crowd of 37,124 booed in anxiety. (Fitzgerald, however, said he never considered reinserting his withdrawn starters.)

But then sophomore linebacker Paddy Fisher, one of the few NU stars still in the game, produced with a much-needed interception at the critical moment.

“They just ran an RPO play, and they were hitting us on it all day on the dunk routes and the bender routes,” Fisher said. “I just read the quarterback’s eyes — he pulled it (to throw) — and just got in the throwing lane and got my hand on the ball.”

A big run from junior running back John Moten, returning from injury, eventually sealed the result and gave the Cats their fourth-straight win in the rivalry series. The team has now won eight straight conference games.

Fitzgerald, as evidenced by his tactics throughout the afternoon prior, was nevertheless mostly forward-focused in his comments afterwards.

“Our guys played well, made big plays, and we came out injury-free and now obviously it’s on to an amazing opportunity,” the coach said.

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