Rapid Recap: Illinois 41, Northwestern 3


Claudia Arriaga/The Daily Northwestern

Sophomore quarterback Cole Freeman scrambles against an Illinois defender. Freeman threw four turnovers in his second career start.

John Riker, Gameday Editor

Rock bottom sounds about right.

On a cool Saturday evening at Ryan Field, Northwestern finished its 2022 season with its most lopsided loss to its most bitter rival, sealing what seemed unthinkable after a thrilling season-opening win in Ireland — 11 consecutive losses and a winless record in the United States. 

In the 41-3 loss, the Wildcats (1-11, 1-8 Big Ten) turned in their rockiest performance of the season against bowl-eligible Illinois (8-4, 5-4) in what could be the final Land of Lincoln rivalry game played in the 97 years of Ryan Field. Sophomore quarterback Cole Freeman threw four interceptions and fumbled in his second career start.

Here, for the last time in 2022, are five takeaways from this afternoon:

1. NU offense held under 10 points for fourth straight game

When coach Pat Fitzgerald was answering questions after the Cats’ 31-3 loss to Minnesota two weeks ago, he made sure to attribute some of the team’s struggles to the offense, rather than laying all the blame on a defense beat up by Golden Gopher running back Mohamed Ibrahim. And now, with November complete and the Cats failing to score in double digits in any of their four games, there’s no hiding it the NU offense is the team’s weakness.

Injuries at quarterback, tight end and the offensive line have played a part, but Saturday’s performance was nearly unwatchable. Starting quarterback Cole Freeman threw four interceptions, botched a handoff and saw two of his turnovers returned for touchdowns, before Fitzgerald benched him for true first-year quarterback Jack Lausch midway through the third quarter. A fourth-quarter field goal by graduate kicker Adam Stage helped NU escape what would have been its first shoutout loss to the Fighting Illini since 1968.

2. Cats’ rush defense can’t stop Fighting Illini attack

The top priority for NU’s Big Ten-worst rush defense was slowing Illinois star running back Chase Brown, and the Cats succeeded at that objective: Brown carried seven times for 14 yards in the first half. But NU couldn’t stop the Fighting Illini rushing attack, surrendering 83 yards and a touchdown burst to Reggie Love III. Love’s speed scorched the Cats defense on a couple occasions, though poor tackling including one play where he broke three tackles to set up Illinois’ first touchdown also doomed NU. One telling stat: defensive backs Cameron Mitchell and Devin Turner led the Cats in first-half tackles. NU’s turnover-prone offense didn’t do its defense any favors and gave up as many touchdowns when it was on the field as the defense did, but the Illinois run game gave the Fighting Illini plenty of breathing room.

3. Illinois’ big plays give visitors commanding first-half lead

With Brown out with an injury early in the first quarter, the Fighting Illini looked to lesser-known contributors to flip momentum in its favor. A 23-yard rush on a fake punt by Illinois punter Hugh Robertson with no defenders in sight for most of the run kept the Fighting Illini offense on the field and with another chance to pad a 7-0 lead. In NU’s next drive, defensive back Devon Witherspoon took advantage of a Freeman overthrow by intercepting the pass and breaking four tackle attempts by Cats offensive players. The 57-yard return set up an Illinois field goal and gave the Fighting Illini a 10-0 lead midway through the third quarter. Illinois defensive back Sydney Brown was at the center of two major plays, snatching a bobble by junior running back Evan Hull out of the air for an interception and running back a botched handoff 53 yards for a touchdown. NU didn’t have much margin for error entering Saturday, and while Illinois barely outgained NU in total yardage, the Cats’ poor execution on the big plays reflected on the scoreboard.

4. Wildcat seniors can’t write a storybook ending

Saturday afternoon may be the last time NU fans see some of the program’s best players in recent memory compete in the purple and white. Junior left tackle Peter Skoronski, a likely first-round NFL pick, kept up All-Big Ten-caliber play amid the disastrous season and a revolving door of quarterbacks and skill players. On defense, senior defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore took down Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito for Adebawore’s fifth sack of the season and added another highlight to an impressive senior season. Hull, Adebawore, receivers Malik Washington and Ray Niro III, kicker Adam Stage and defensive backs Mitchell, Jeremiah Lewis and AJ Hampton Jr. were among the 22 players honored as a part of the Cats’ Senior Day festivities. For a graduating class that reached two Big Ten Championship Games and won the Citrus and Holiday Bowls, Saturday was a brutal way to see their NU careers come to a close.

5. 2022 season comes to a merciful end

Illinois came to Ryan Field with plenty on the line: a win combined with a Purdue loss would ensure a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game to take on No. 3 Michigan. The Cats came in with two objectives, finally getting a win and sending out the seniors strong. NU couldn’t accomplish either, and now it will have the relief of not having to play until its Sept. 2, 2023 contest against Rutgers.

The 11-game losing streak made it abundantly clear the Cats can’t run back the same approach next year and expect to compete in the Big Ten West. NU football’s most interesting offseason in a long time starts now.

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Twitter: @jhnriker