Football: No. 14 Northwestern dominates in the running game, beats Illinois 28-10


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Jesse Brown holds the Land of Lincoln Trophy on his helmet. Northwestern has won the trophy six years in a row.

Greg Svirnovskiy, Senior Staffer


Pat Fitzgerald wants everyone to keep discounting Northwestern.

When he saw the video of Illinois linebacker Milo Eifler calling the No. 14 Wildcats (6-1, 6-1 Big Ten) “little brother,” Fitzgerald made sure the clip made its way into the locker room. And its “level of disrespect” was conveyed to his guys clearly.

Yet another slight, in a year that’s seen NU rack up six wins in the Big Ten and gain supremacy over their division. But the Cats have embraced the Fighting Reece Davises moniker and every other sign of disrespect along the way.

“If anyone would like to say anything derogatory toward our players, please do so this week,” Fitzgerald said. “That was not taken very kindly in our locker room. That’s ok. It is what it is, the Hat stays in Evanston.”

Perhaps the disrespect stems from last year, when NU had one of the worst passing attacks in the country and finished 1-8 in the Big Ten. But that one victory came against Eifler and the Fighting Illini. The Cats beat them with their running game. Quarterback Andrew Marty ran the ball 30 times, accounting for 112 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Drake Anderson added 92 rushing yards of his own.

This year, despite a much improved passing attack, NU again pounded the rock its bid to beat Illinois (2-4, 2-4 Big Ten). The Cats accumulated over 400 yards on the ground — for the first time since they did so against Illinois in 2003 — and were rewarded, came away with a sixth straight Land of Lincoln Trophy.

They were led on offense by freshmen running backs Evan Hull and Cam Porter, each of whom had monster offensive performances. Porter, who lone back on the field for much of the first three quarters, led the way with 142 yards and brought home 2 touchdowns. Hull pitched in with 149 yards and a touchdown on just 13 carries.

“We were able to put it all together today,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m really proud of that offensive line, the tight ends and receivers blocking. And then obviously our two backs, the way they played.”

Things didn’t look promising early for the Cats. A Drake Anderson fumble on Northwestern’s first play from offense gifted Illinois the ball deep in the red zone. They looked to capitalize.

But a red zone stand by the defense, in which seniors Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher both came down with hard tackles on Illinois running backs, forced the Fighting Illini to kick a field goal on fourth down — which they missed.

“We come here every week and we talk about how well our defense plays,” senior quarterback Peyton Ramsey said. “I think that gives our offense some confidence. After that first turnover our defense gets off the field, they give us some momentum and they give us some confidence. They do it every week.”

The Illini took the lead on a 39-yard field goal by kicker James McCourt. It capped off a 13-play, 59-yard drive in which Illinois only ran the ball. That would be all the Fighting Illini would score until the fourth quarter.

The Cats took the ball into the red zone for the first time all game on their next possession, after consecutive explosive plays — Cam Porter’s explosive 31-yard run on third down to midfield and Kyric McGowan’s 22-yard sweep play from the backfield.

Ramsey and junior full back Charlie Mangieri would end the drive by combining for the pair’s second touchdown of the season, a two-yard play-action pass that fooled an Illinois defense that had fully committed to defending a run.

NU’s wonkiest drive came in its last one of the first half. The Cats converted just one of their four third-downs. Knowing a field goal try would force NU to kick into the wind, Fitzgerald went for it on fourth down three times — the Cats made it work each time. The 17-play drive was capped off with Porter’s first touchdown of the game, putting the Cats up 14-3.

“Something we’ve done over the course of the year is go for it on fourth down,” Ramsey said. “I think as players, we really respect that. Coach Fitz is telling us that he believes in us, that he has faith in us to stay out on the field and go and execute. I think it sends a message to us and the rest of our team to continue to march.”

Porter came up with another big drive at the beginning of the second half, rushing the ball 7 times and marshalling NU’s offense into the end zone. Porter’s second score, coming on a blistering 18-yard run, came from a direct snap. He found an edge and rode strong blocking by senior lineman Sam Gerak to hand the Cats a 21-3 lead.

“I knew coming in that I was gonna get a couple reps,” Porter said. “Not really knowing how many reps I was gonna get at Wildcat, but definitely a blessing. Trying to take advantage of it and it was great to get things going.”

By the end of the game, Fitzgerald and his staff opted to play their second-stringers to give thier starters rest. Both teams would tack on another touchdown, but any potential comeback for the Fighting Illini was too little, too late.

With the win, the Cats finished the season 5-0 against Big Ten West opponents and 6-1 in the conference overall, setting them up for a showdown next Saturday against No. 4 Ohio State.

“It’s been a great season for us,” Fitzgerald said. “We obviously stubbed our toe one time. The rest of the year these guys have been resilient, they’ve been through a ton. To go undefeated in the West again is something that we take great pride in.”

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Twitter: @gsvirnovskiy