The Northwestern Wildcats returned to the field against Illinois with a vengeance this Saturday. Motivated by a loss to Michigan State two weekends ago, when their perfect 5-0 record was broken, the ‘Cats came ready to dominate. They ran their way to a 28-10 victory and cinched a 6-1 record to end the regular season.
Typical of December mornings in Evanston, the teams kicked-off in the freezing wind and rain. Sophomore running back Drake Anderson fumbled a slippery ball within the 5-yard line on the team’s first play, making Northwestern’s defense scramble to hold Illinois from gaining early points.
Senior linebackers Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher stepped up, forcing Illinois to attempt a field goal on fourth down. Illinois kicker James McCourt muffed the kick, which kept the scoreboard blank and set the tone for the game as Northwestern’s defense remained immovable for the remainder of the afternoon.
Northwestern’s defense is the 13th best in the country, ranked second in the nation for fewest points allowed. Michigan State’s offense might have poked some holes in the Wildcats’ D-line two weekends ago, as quarterback Rocky Lombardi passed 167 yard and rushed for 65 last game. But Northwestern’s defensive coordinator Coach Mike Hankwitz seems to have closed those gaps, as Illinois struggled to move the ball downfield for the entire game.
“One of our huge mistakes last game was letting the quarterback scramble way too much,” senior defensive end Earnest Brown said. “Don’t give him any rat holes so he gets a chance to run, that’s what we worked on this whole week.”
Northwestern’s defense held Illinois to 155 rushing yards the entire game, allowing Illinois to score only 3 points in the first three quarters. Defensive pressure from the ‘Cats continued to force turnovers, making Illinois’s third down efficiency 3/12 and only allowing an average of 4.6 yards per play.
“I think the best thing we did was get off the field,” Fisher said. “Third downs or fourth downs, we gave our offense the opportunity to go score and make some drives happen.”
Northwestern’s offense quickly took over, scoring 28 unanswered points in the first three quarters. Both teams favored rushing the ball in the slippery conditions, and Northwestern dominated Illinois in their run game, with 411 total rushing yards. The Wildcats have proven to have a lot of depth in running backs, as more inexperienced players show their reliability. True freshman running back Cam Porter took a snap early in the first quarter and never seemed to give the ball back, acting as lead running back for most of the game. Porter scored two of Northwestern’s four touchdowns and rushed 142 yards, getting the most reps in his career.
Redshirt freshman running back Evan Hull rushed 149 yards in just 13 carries, scoring Northwestern’s fourth touchdown and securing the game for the ‘Cats in the fourth.
The Fighting Illini managed to score their first touchdown of the game in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. It did not seem to matter as the ‘Cats held their lead, confidently finishing the game 28-10 and winning the Hat for the sixth year in a row.
“Just being able to send our seniors off with a win here, at home, on senior day, beating our rival, for six years straight, is just unbelievable,” Fisher said.
It’s a positive sign as Northwestern heads to the Big Ten Championships against Ohio State next weekend. The ‘Cats can use this momentum for confidence as they spend this week preparing to face the fourth ranked Buckeyes in Indianapolis.
“We need to really hone in on our fundamentals and technique, and just have great focus during our week and a great sense of urgency,” Fisher said. “We know what kind of team they are and what kind of plays they can make, so it comes down to our fundamentals, our technique, and doing our job.”