Jackson, No. 22 Northwestern run over Illinois
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The last time Northwestern won seven consecutive games, coach Pat Fitzgerald was the star linebacker in 1996.
No wonder Fitzgerald is so bullish on this group of Wildcats.
“This team has dominated the last couple of weeks,” he said after Saturday’s 42-7 Big Ten Conference rout of Illinois. “It’s as hot as any team in the country, and it’s improved as much as any team in the country.”
Fitzgerald might have a biased viewpoint, but it’s not hard to argue that No. 22 Northwestern (9-3, 7-2 Big Ten) enters its bowl game playing at its peak. It hasn’t lost since a 33-7 setback on Oct. 7 to Penn State, and it has allowed only 20 points in the past three games.
After a shaky first quarter in their regular-season finale, the Wildcats got back on script. They scored 14 points in each of the final three quarters, limiting the punchless Fighting Illini (2-10, 0-9) to eight first downs following a touchdown drive on their initial possession.
“They executed better than we did in the first quarter,” Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson said. “We turned it around after that. We executed better the last three quarters.”
Thorson exemplified his comments. After ending a first-quarter possession by throwing an interception at the Illinois 1 to safety Bennett Williams, Thorson got hot. He capped the Wildcats’ first scoring drive with an 11-yard pass to Garrett Dickerson at the 10:35 mark of the second quarter.
Then Thorson got a break on an underthrown deep ball when cornerback Nate Hobbs mistimed his leap and couldn’t knock down or grab the ball. Bennett Skowronek turned it into a 52-yard gain to the Illini 5, and Jelani Roberts scored on the next play for a 14-7 lead that Northwestern kept building.
The key play came less than five minutes into the third quarter. Pinned deep in its territory, Illinois made the killing error that has colored its year. Freshman quarterback Cam Thomas fumbled as Joe Gaziano sacked him at his 3, and Samdup Miller scooped up the ball for the touchdown that made it 21-7.
Justin Jackson peeled off a 79-yard run on the Wildcats’ next possession, then plunged in from the 1 for their second touchdown in 86 seconds and a 28-7 advantage at the 8:47 mark of the period.
That was basically game, set, match against an Illini offense that didn’t score more than 24 points in a game all year.
“We just didn’t finish,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “That’s been the story of our year. We had a few good moments, but just not enough wins. We wanted to get off to a fast start, and we did, but we knew Northwestern’s a good team.”
Jeremy Larkin and Jesse Brown added scoring runs of 4 and 18 yards, respectively, in the fourth quarter for the Wildcats, who finished with 446 total yards, including 306 on the ground. Jackson piled up 144 yards on 18 carries, giving him 5,154 for his career with a bowl game remaining.
Thorson was 13 of 21 for 140 yards, tying the school record with his 44th career touchdown pass. The defense permitted just 239 yards and 11 first downs, sacking the mobile Thomas four times and notching nine tackles for loss.
“I thought we were going to get a pretty big flurry from them early, and we weathered that,” Fitzgerald said. “Then we started playing our style of football. This doesn’t happen by accident.”
Thomas, who sat out the prior two games with head and ankle injuries, completed 14 of 31 passes for 139 yards and two interceptions while adding 46 yards on the ground.
Illini defensive tackle Tito Odenigbo was ejected with 12:05 left in the game after Larkin’s touchdown for throwing a penalty flag at an official at the end of a sequence where the teams combined for four unsportsmanlike conduct fouls.
NOTES: Northwestern RB Justin Jackson became the 23rd player in FBS history to eclipse 5,000 rushing yards in his career last week with 166 against Minnesota. ... Illinois has played more true freshmen (22) than any team in FBS and given 16 of them starts in at least one game. No other Big Ten team has started more than five freshmen. ... This marked the first time the teams had played in Champaign since 2013. The 2015 matchup was played at Soldier Field in Chicago.