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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Rapid Recap: Northwestern 45, Illinois 43

Daily file photo by Angeli Mittal
Sixth-year wideout Cam Johnson gets hype after a play. The wide receiver finished with a career-high in yards with 124 in the 45-43 win over Illinois on Saturday.

College football’s well-renowned rivalry week leads to down-to-the-wire battles, games that thrive off amped-up fan bases and unimaginable upsets.

Northwestern’s trip to face Illinois on Saturday encompassed each of these traits, as the Wildcats (7-5, 5-4 Big Ten) took down the Fighting Illini (5-7, 3-6 Big Ten) 45-43 in an intense back-and-forth affair. The win knocked Illinois out of postseason contention, while the ‘Cats hoisted the Land of Lincoln trophy for the first time since 2020.

Although the contest was filled with touchdowns, field goals and unorthodox scores throughout all 60 minutes, the high-scoring contest was determined by a failed two-point conversion with less than a minute remaining.

Three possessions after senior kicker Jack Olsen’s cushioning field goal deep in the fourth quarter, Illinois quarterback John Paddock found wideout Casey Washington for a 80-yard receiving touchdown — cutting the NU’s lead to two.

However, the ‘Cats defense regained life on the Fighting Illini’s two-point conversion attempt, stopping them in their tracks and locking in NU’s seventh win of the season.

Here are five takeaways from the ‘Cats’ successful business trip against their in-state rival.


1. It’s Cam Johnson’s world and everyone else is just living in it

Since senior wideout Bryce Kirtz’s performance against Minnesota, no wide receiver for NU or in the Big Ten, has outshined the Brownsburg, Indiana, native’s career day.

Enter sixth-year wide receiver Cam Johnson.

No, Johnson didn’t eclipse Kirtz’s 215 yards nor two touchdowns, but the veteran was a problem for the Fighting Illini’s defense all day. From showing off his vertical on the ‘Cats first touchdown to a 42-yard reception down the near sideline, Bryant and Johnson were locked in from the get-go.

Johnson finished with seven catches, a touchdown and a career-high with 124 yards.

2. ‘Cats get into shootout with Fighting Illini

Senior defensive back Jaheem Joseph’s interception on Illinois’ second possession of the contest provided optimism to what would be expected by NU’s defense during the rivalry week affair — another strong outing for coach David Braun’s defensive unit.

Yet, the contest quickly turned into everything but that.

After Paddock’s miscue, Illinois would put points on the board every drive until the fourth quarter. Outside of the defense’s pick-six, coach Bret Bielema’s squad scored two touchdowns and kicked three field goals.

For a defense that forced three turnovers and back-to-back stops in the red zone against Purdue, Saturday’s game was determined by whichever defense played better.

3. ‘Bend, don’t break’: Offense Edition?

NU faced repercussions last week following sixth-year quarterback Ben Bryant’s fourth quarter interception against Purdue. Although the ‘Cats won, the Boilermakers scored on the ensuing possession while NU didn’t cross the pylon again for the rest of the game.

Against Illinois, Bryant and the ‘Cats faced a similar dilemma following an interception. This time, though, the Fighting Illini took it to the house for a pick-six. The momentum shifting play came with nearly a minute left in the first half and gave Illinois a 20-14 lead.

However, NU bounced back with ease.

Bryant led the ‘Cats offense down the field for a seven-play, 75-yard drive with three seconds to spare. With five of seven plays resulting in double-digit yards — rushing and receiving — it eventually gave the purple and white a 21-20 lead entering the half.

4. Back-to-back fourth-quarter special team takeaways save the ‘Cats

Following Illinois’ theatrical early fourth quarter touchdown and NU’s consequent three-and-out that led to Braun sending out his punting unit, the momentum was fully in the Fighting Illini’s favor.

That all changed in a matter of moments — two, to be specific.

Illinois’ Isaiah Williams would go on to muff Renner’s 45-yard punt, resulting in a free-for-all for the pigskin. By the time bodies were pulled off one another, graduate wide receiver Raymond Niro III was the holder, giving NU its first red zone appearance since nearly the 11-minute mark in the third quarter.

And the ‘Cats weren’t done just yet special teams wise.

Less than three minutes later, sophomore linebacker Braydon Brus jarred Illinois’ Kenari Wilson’s kickoff return loose, popping the ball into the air just past the 15-yard line. Similar to Niro, sophomore defensive back Garner Wallace was there to save the day, catching the ball and racing into the end zone.

The game-changing plays would give the ‘Cats an 11-point lead early in the game’s final quarter.

5. The Hat is heading back to Evanston

When asked if he would lift the Land of Lincoln Trophy if his team beat Illinois at Monday’s press conference, it was clear that Braun was focused on winning the affair before discussing what he would do with the hardware.

But with the 45-43 victory and critical two-point attempt stop by the defense, Braun and the ‘Cats don’t have to visualize anymore — the Hat is headed back to Evanston for the first time in three years.

Although the victory didn’t come easily, it capped off an unpredictably amazing season for the football program. The triumph ups NU’s win streak to three, keeps morale high and undoubtedly enters Braun’s name into the Big Ten Coach of the Year conversation.

What a better way to end the regular season than this.

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Twitter: @LPIII_TRES

Related Stories:
Football: What To Watch For: Northwestern heads to Illinois in hopes of taking back the Land of Lincoln Trophy
Football: ‘Bend, don’t break’: Northwestern’s red zone stands instrumental for 23-15 victory over Purdue
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