CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) When Northwestern defensive end Samdup Miller stretched out his hands to push the football into Illinois’ end zone in the third quarter Saturday night, fellow defensive end Joe Gaziano danced wildly across the field, fists pumping.
Gaziano’s sack had just forced the ball out of Illinois quarterback Cam Thomas’ hands. And, on a night when the crowd was quiet and small, the Wildcats’ offense had been sluggish, Miller’s score pushed No. 23 Northwestern to a 21-7 lead that even early in the third quarter felt like too much for the Illini to overcome.
It was, and the Wildcats (9-3, 7-2 Big Ten) went on to finish off Illinois, 42-7, winning their seventh straight.
”The strip-sack touchdown was huge,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. ”In a sleepy building to get that kind of juice going, it was big. It was big. The sideline erupted.”
The bowl-bound Wildcats held Illinois scoreless after giving up a first-quarter touchdown, and put 42 straight points on the board. Justin Jackson ran for 144 yards and a touchdown.
With bowl season ahead, Fitzgerald turned quickly to what he said he believes is a negative narrative about the Wildcats that followed their early 41-17 loss to Duke.
”I would prefer if that narrative gets changed. This is one of the hottest teams in the country, a team that’s dominated back to back weeks,” he said. ”I think this is a pretty attractive team, I hope we get to field a lot of calls. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t.”
The Illini (2-10, 0-9) lost their 10th straight and finished winless in the Big Ten for the first time since 2012. Second-year coach Lovie Smith said that, given his team’s youth, a difficult season was likely.
”You have to look at what we’re talking about, 15, 16 (freshman starters). Were you expecting a national championship? Probably not,” he said. ”We knew we had to rebuild our program, and that’s what we’ve been doing. And that’s what I think we will continue to do.”
Northwestern took the lead for good at 14-7 with 8:03 left in the second quarter on Jelani Roberts’ 5-yard touchdown run.
When defensive end Joe Gaziano knocked the ball out of Illinois quarterback Cam Thomas’ hands and fellow defensive end Samdup Miller scooped it up and punched the ball across the goal line for a third-quarter touchdown and a 21-7 lead, the game was out of reach.
Illinois opened up a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter on Thomas’ 23-yard keeper. The lead was Illinois’ first since the first quarter of its loss to Iowa on Oct. 7, six-plus games.
The Illini rolled up almost 30 percent of their 239 yards of offense on their opening, 69-yard drive.
Thomas, a freshman making his second start, finished 14-31 for 139 yards and two interceptions. He ran for 46 yards on 18 carries.
Northwestern: A week after the Wildcats used 10 ball carriers in a blowout win over Minnesota, they let Jackson and Jeremy Larkin, who had 71 yards and a touchdown on nine carries, carry the load on Saturday. The two ground down a thin Illinois defense. The three turnovers forced by the Wildcats were big, too, leading to 14 points. Northwestern finishes second in the Big Ten West, behind undefeated Wisconsin.
Illinois: Season No. 2 of the Lovie Smith era came to an end with one fewer win than Illinois managed in its first season under the NFL veteran. On the final Saturday of their season, though, there were signs of life for the Illini. Thomas sparked the offense early and had 60 yards rushing at halftime (though he finished with less). And junior linebackers Tre Watson and Del’Shawn Phillips combined for 21 tackles. But the strain of a long season showed late in the game, when defensive tackle Tito Odenigbo threw a penalty flag back at an official following a Northwestern touchdown, and was ejected.
Illinois and Thomas found room to run on their opening drive, but the Northwestern defense slowly closed the door the rest of the game, continuing a trend that started two games ago against Purdue. The Wildcats held the Boilermakers to just 13 points in that win, then shut out Minnesota before giving up just the single score against Illinois Saturday.
But early Saturday, watching Thomas run, the Wildcats defense was uneasy, said freshman linebacker Paddy Fisher, who finished with a team-high 10 tackles and an interception.
”(We) just tried to calm everyone down. Everyone was freaking out a little bit,” he said.
Senior day at Illinois served as one last reminder of just how young the Illini were this season. The Illini only had nine total seniors, and only five started – three on offense and two on defense. Those freshman starters had a major impact Saturday. Thomas was starting his second game at quarterback and was the engine behind the early scoring drive. And freshman safety Bennett Williams had an interception in the second quarter on the Illinois goal line, his third of the season.
Northwestern: The Wildcats will wait to learn which bowl they will be playing in, the third straight year Northwestern has left the Illini game knowing a bowl game was ahead. The Wildcats ended last season with a 31-24 Pinstripe Bowl win over Pittsburgh.
Illinois: With just two wins, Illinois’ season is over. The last bowl trip for the Illini was in 2014, a 35-18 loss to Louisiana Tech in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl.
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