Football: Northwestern wins fifth-straight over Illinois to once again claim the Land of Lincoln Trophy


Joshua Hoffman/The Daily Northwestern

Jared Thomas holds the Land of Lincoln Trophy. The captain never lost a game to Illinois.

Peter Warren, Print Managing Editor


CHAMPAIGN — As the clock crept towards triple zeros on the Memorial Stadium scoreboard, on Northwestern’s season and on his career as a Wildcat, senior center Jared Thomas formed a hudle on the sideline.

NU had just scored its fourth touchdown of the day a few seconds earlier — the final brushstroke of the Cats’ (3-9, 1-8 Big Ten) 29-10 victory over Illinois on Saturday. Now, with just seconds remaining before he would lift the Land of Lincoln Trophy once again, he had a message for his brothers.

“It’s been a trying year for us as a group,” Thomas said. “As one of the guys who was called upon to be a leader for the team, I felt like it was necessary for me to tell them at the end of a game like this that I love them.”

It was a special moment for Thomas, who was a part of a controlling NU rushing attack that dominated the 113th meeting between the Cats and the Fighting Illini (6-6, 4-5).

NU entered the game determined to run the ball. Despite having only one running back — redshirt freshman Drake Anderson — with meaningful minutes played, the Cats relied on a heavy dosage of runs. The game plan worked, as NU rushed for 378 yards on 65 carries while only throwing the ball 10 times for 55 yards.

“I went into it knowing I was going to be running the football, which was fun,” sophomore quarterback Andrew Marty said. “I think I ran the ball 30 times, which I’ve never done in my life. And I had a blast every single time.”

Marty — who started the season fourth on the depth chart — accounted for 111 yards himself on 30 carries, while Anderson had 23 runs for 87 yards. And while those two logged touch after touch, true freshman Coco Azema — a defensive back at the start of the month — and redshirt freshman Raymond Niro III — a wide receiver at the same juncture — provided big-play ability out of the backfield. Azema had seven carries — including one electric 62-yard dash — for 123 yards and Niro had four carries for 56 yards.

The run-at-all-costs mindset bared fruit early as the Cats scored first on their second possession. After the defense forced a three-and-out, NU drove down the field on 13 plays for 45 yards to set up a Charlie Kuhbander 33-yard field goal.

For the second time in three weeks, the first play of the second quarter marked a critical moment in the game. On fourth-and-four inside Illinois territory, Marty made an ill-advised throw towards a congested area of the sideline, where cornerback Nate Hobbs snagged the ball for an interception. The junior then returned the ball 29 yards to give the Fighting Illini excellent field position. Four plays later, Dre Brown scurried into the end zone for a touchdown, giving the Fighting Illini a 7-3 lead.

Most of the season, a touchdown like that would be deflating for NU. But the Cats didn’t wilt after the score. Behind the ground-and-pound game, NU grinded down the field to the tune of 14 rushing plays and one pass play. On the final play of the drive, Marty took the ball himself for a 12-yard score to go up 10-7.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald credited Marty for leadership but also praised the offensive line for its “physical domination” at the line of scrimmage.

“I thought we had a great plan,” Fitzgerald said. “I think we’ve run the ball pretty consistent against these guys now in these five straight years. We planned for terrible weather. We were going to be in four-wheel drive regardless of what happened.”

Despite the three-point lead, the Cats dominated the first half stats. NU held substantial edges over Illinois in total yards, rushing yards, plays, and time of possession.

While the passing game was overshadowed by the running attack, Marty did unleash one beautiful pass in the third quarter to go up 17-7. After six straight rushes to start the drive, Marty found Riley Lees breaking down the middle of the field, dropping the pass right into the junior’s lap so he didn’t even have to change his stride.

“Riley’s a gamer,” Marty said. “He just ran his route exactly how it should have been. We prepped that all week. It was drawn up to perfection.”

The Fighting Illini weren’t down for the count yet. After missing a 49-yard field goal earlier in the third quarter, James McCourt’s 50-yard attempt doinked in off the post to cut the NU lead to one possession with about 17 minutes left in the contest.

And in the fourth, Marty almost made another critical error when a third-down pass was picked off in the end zone. But a hands-to-the-face penalty negated the turnover, and Marty capitalized by sneaking over the goal line two plays later. Kuhbander did miss the point after, so NU was only up 23-10. But Azema added the final touchdown in the final two minutes as he scampered in from 24 yards out on fourth down.

While the Cats’ offensive line controlled the game, the defensive line did the same. The Fighting Illini managed only 160 total yards — including 14 on the ground — as starting quarterback Matt Robinson was ineffective and Illinois’ collection of tailbacks failed to get anything going.

“It was cool looking up at the scoreboard and seeing negative rushing yards for a good part of the third quarter,” senior defensive end Joe Gaziano said. “We did a good job attacking the line of scrimmage… It really comes down to being on the same page as a whole defense.”

After the final whistle blew and NU started celebrating its record fifth-straight win over Illinois, the Land of Lincoln Trophy — affectionately known as The Hat — found its way into the arms of senior defensive end Trent Goens, who lifted the trophy high into the air in celebration. But he soon gave it to Thomas.

The Indiana native placed the 28.5-pound award onto his helmet as he followed his teammates toward the southeast side of the stadium to sing the fight song. As his teammates jogged toward the fans, Thomas’ steps were measured. He had a smile on his face, as if taking in his final minutes in purple and white with clarity.

Six minutes later, the captain stepped off the Memorial Stadium turf into the tunnel alongside a fellow fifth-year senior and team leader in Gaziano. Neither man ever lost the rivalry game — a perfect 5-0.

“To finish the season strong like we did today,” Thomas said, “this is definitely something that is very high in the ranks for me when I look back on my time at Northwestern and the rest of my life.”

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