No. 16 Northwestern 24, Illinois 14
CHICAGO - Bill Cubit is now 0-1 as the head coach of Illinois football, sans interim title.
On the same day Illinois announced a two-year contract extension for Cubit, the Illini (5-7, 2-6 Big Ten) missed its third straight -- and final chance -- to clinch bowl eligibility with a 24-14 loss to No. 16 Northwestern (10-2, 6-2) in front of an announced crowd of 33,514 at Soldier Field. Illinois lost six of its last seven and finished with under six wins for the third time in four seasons.
Northwestern running back Justin Jackson ran for 172 yards on 37 carries, and quarterback Clayton Thorson threw for 125 yards (12-for-25) and a touchdown and an interception.
The Wildcats defense stymied an Illinois offense that was the worst in the Big Ten during conference play.
Three Illini drives into Northwestern territory ended with zero points due to a turnover on downs, an interception and a missed field goal.
Quarterback Wes Lunt completed 20 of 41 passes for 241 yards. He ran for a one-yard touchdown, the first of his Illini career. Josh Ferguson totaled 145 yards (100 receiving yards on seven catches).
The Wildcats came into the game with the 119th-ranked passing offense in the FBS and the Big Ten's worst scoring offense (20.4 points per game) but found early success against the Illini defense in the first half. But the Illini defense held Northwestern to just three points the final 41 minutes of the game.
Mason Monheim's 58-yard interception return with 0:45 left in the third quarter gave Illini life, narrowing Northwestern's lead to seven points. But Northwestern answered with a 41-yard scoring drive that led to Jack Mitchell's 39-yard field goal.
What it means
Illinois likely -- there is a chance a 5-7 team or two may play in a bowl -- will not practice nor play after November for the third time in four seasons. Cubit enters a possible dead-end year without the ability to try to sell the momentum of a bowl trip to recruits. In a game, Illinois moved from Memorial Stadium to 15 miles from the Northwestern campus in Evanston, Northwestern proved just how much more momentum it has as a football program and athletic department.
What went right
After a rough first 19 minutes in which it gave up 21 points, the Illini defense allowed Illinois to hang around and have a chance at the win. Clayton Fejedelem had his seventh game of double-digit tackles. Illinois finally let Lunt -- a 6-foot-5, 225-pound quarterback -- to sneak it in from the goal line, resulting in his first career rushing touchdown with the Illini.
What went wrong
The Illini offense remained a hot mess and again was crushed by drops. The Illini had at least six drops in the first half -- maybe up to eight -- that killed drives. And while Wes Lunt didn't get help from his receivers, yet again, but he had another bad game -- which doesn't give a lot of hope for next season. The Illini defense made a bad Northwestern passing attack look dangerous early. The Illini sold out to beat the run but that exposed its lack of speed in the secondary with the Illini getting beat in man-to-man coverage early in the game.
Illinois also made several key penalties that gave Northwestern extra chances -- though a few were questionable. On a punt, Caleb Day was called for a personal foul for leaping over the punt shield. Northwestern scored on the drive. In the third quarter, Chunky Clements was called for a personal foul after diving for a fumble after Thorson was sacked on third down. Christian DiLauro jumped offsides on 4th and 1 at the Northwestern four-yard line, costing Illinois a chance to find the endzone with four minutes remaining. And Taylor Zalewski missed the ensuing chip-shot field goal to get Illinois within a possession.
Star of the game
Justin Jackson: The Northwestern sophomore running back is the bellcow of a bad Northwestern offense. He moves the chains, keeps the clock moving (giving the great defense a breather) and breaks a few big ones per game.
An offseason of uncertainty as Cubit's staff awaits a new athletic director and hopes to close a recruiting class with a bang. Illinois returns many its key players from this season -- and will add key players like Mikey Dudek, Justin Hardee and Dre Brown -- but will lose some key players to graduation, including running back Josh Ferguson, guard Ted Karras, receiver Geronimo Allison, defensive lineman Jihad Ward, linebacker Mason Monheim, cornerback V'Angelo Bentley and safety Clayton Fejedelem. Illinois could be in the bowl hunt again next season, but has a challenging schedule that includes North Carolina, an improving Western Michigan team and nine Big Ten games. Cubit and his staff's futures will again be uncertain with a new athletic director likely arriving in the next few months.