Northwestern (3-9, 1-8 B1G) rode their run game to their first and only Big Ten win of the season on Saturday, a 29-10 victory over rival Illinois (6-6, 4-5 B1G). The 19-point triumph extended the Wildcats’ win streak against the Illini and possession of the Land of Lincoln trophy to five years. And frankly, this one was all ’Cats.
Coming into Saturday’s matchup, it was clear that if Northwestern was going to beat Illinois, it would have to be on the back of its oft-struggling run game. It was sophomore quarterback Andrew Marty’s first start, and the Wildcats had struggled in the passing game all year.
Offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s play-calling reflected that all game: Marty attempted only ten passes to pair with 65 run plays.
Redshirt first-year Drake Anderson led the running back squad with 23 rushing attempts, good for 92 yards. Marty, too, showed off his running abilities and picked up 112 yards on 30 attempts and two rushing touchdowns of his own.
The Wildcats opened the scoring early, settling for a 33-yard field goal from Charlie Kuhbander after a few offensive misfires that could likely be attributed to the wet conditions at kickoff.
The Illini had their sole bright spot at the beginning of the second quarter. They picked off Marty on the quarter’s first play, and on the second play of Illinois’ drive, redshirt first-year quarterback Matt Robinson found Caleb Reams on a 29-yard deep route. Two plays later, Dre Brown rushed the final six yards and found the end zone to give the Illini their only lead.
The next Northwestern drive, Marty scored the Wildcats’ first touchdown of the day on a designed quarterback run after an eight-and-a-half minute, 15-play drive. The quarterback attempted (and completed, for the record) one pass the entire drive.
After 30 minutes of play, the ‘Cats led offensive yardage by 150 yards (180 to Illinois’ 30). Of those yards, Northwestern had 162 rushing yards, and Illinois had one.
Illinois came out of the half with a mostly successful air assault on their first drive. It eventually stalled, and they set up a 48-yard field goal for James McCourt. He missed wide right, and the ’Cats kept their lead.
Starting with good field position after the missed field goal, the Wildcats continued their ground-and-pound assault. With the run game very much established, Marty shocked the Illini defense with a 34-yard air bomb to hit Riley Lees on a seam route for another Northwestern touchdown.
Illinois responded with three points on their next possession. They drove into Northwestern territory and McCourt redeemed himself when he booted a 50-yard field goal off the right upright and through.
A notable star of the game was true freshman Coco Azema, who looked like a natural backup to Anderson despite moving from his normal defensive back position. On a third-and-one late in the third quarter, Azema broke outside for a 62-yard run to bring the ’Cats into the red zone. He finished the day with seven attempts for 123 yards.
With the ball on the Illini 10-yard line to begin the fourth quarter, Marty threw an interception in the end zone, but a personal foul call against defensive end Ayo Shogbonyo nulled it.
Marty took it in himself on a quarterback sneak soon after, but Kuhbander missed the extra point. The ’Cats’ lead stood at 13 points early in the fourth quarter.
Ray Niro III decided to hop on the treadmill that was Illinois’s run defense on Northwestern’s next drive, piling on a 39-yard rush to bring Northwestern into Illini territory.
The Wildcats drove down into the red zone again before the offense stalled, and Kuhbander’s day got worse when he missed the ensuing 36-yard field goal attempt.
The Northwestern defense bailed him out on Illinois’s next drive, immediately forcing a fourth down conversion attempt on the Illini 30. In his final game, senior Joe Gaziano stripped quarterback Isaiah Williams and Northwestern recovered the fumble.
On what likely would have been the ’Cats’ final play regardless, Azema took the handoff from Marty on a fourth-and-eight play just inside the Illini 25-yard line. He trucked Illinois’s free safety and took it to the house.
On Illinois’s final possession, they went to the air for a last-minute touchdown, but A.J. Hampton picked off Williams as time expired to seal the 19-point win.
The Wildcats were down to their fourth-string quarterback, Andrew Marty, to start their final game. Their backup running back was a defensive back playing out of position.
They hadn’t won a Big Ten matchup all season, and had secured the least amount of wins in a season since Pat Fitzgerald took over head coaching duties in 2006.
Meanwhile, Illinois was finally set to play in a college football bowl game, their first since 2014 and first under head coach Lovie Smith.
And yet, it’s Northwestern who bring home the Land of Lincoln Trophy for a fifth-straight year, closing out their tough season on a high note.