Safety Sydney Brown became the first FBS player this season to return an interception and a fumble for touchdowns in the same game to highlight Illinois’ 41-3 Big Ten victory over Northwestern on Saturday afternoon in Evanston, Illinois.
Brown, the twin brother of national rushing leader Chase Brown, scored on a 53-yard fumble return and a 39-yard interception in the third quarter as Illinois (8-4, 5-4 Big Ten) forced six turnovers to retain the Land of Lincoln Trophy.
The Illini did their part to earn their first spot in the Big Ten championship game, but Purdue (8-4, 6-3) rallied to win at Indiana to claim the West Division title. Nonetheless, Illinois finished with its best regular-season record since Ron Zook’s 2007 team earned a Rose Bowl berth with a 9-3 mark.
Northwestern (1-11, 1-8) dropped its 11th game in a row as sophomore walk-on quarterback Cole Freeman, making his second start, completed 12 of 22 passes for 93 yards and four interceptions before being replaced late in the third quarter by freshman Jack Lausch.
Chase Brown, who entered the game as the nation’s rushing leader with 1,582 yards, limped off midway through the first quarter with a leg injury. He returned periodically and finished with a season-low 61 yards and one touchdown on 19 carries.
After Brown’s injury, Reggie Love III (11 rushes, 85 yards) took over and rushed for 43 of the 57 yards remaining on the drive -- capping the march with a 2-yard blast off the right side for a 7-0 Illinois lead with 5:22 left in the first.
Northwestern drove into Illinois territory on all three of its second-quarter possessions, but all three ended in interceptions. All-America cornerback candidate Devon Witherspoon picked off two while Sydney Brown earned his first of two interceptions.
Illinois built a 17-0 lead by halftime on Caleb Griffin’s 23-yard field goal and quarterback Tommy DeVito’s 1-yard sneak.
The offensive pattern changed for Northwestern in the second half, but only slightly. The Wildcats rushed to Illinois’ 37-yard line on their second drive of the third quarter, but then Freeman and running back Andrew Clair lost the ball at the mesh point. Sydney Brown picked up the fumble and cruised 53 yards for a score and a 27-0 lead with 7:23 left in the third.
Brown returned to the end zone just three-plus minutes later as he picked off a Freeman pass and zipped 39 yards down the left sideline to give Illinois a 34-0 lead with 4:06 to go in the third.
Illinois’ bid for its first Big Ten shutout since Oct. 14, 2000 ended when Alex Stage booted a 28-yard field goal with 12:17 to play.
--Field Level Media