Northwestern 42, Illinois 21
EVANSTON, Ill. - Good teams don't beat themselves very often. In a season full of self-inflicted wounds, Illinois (3-9, 2-7 Big Ten) proved on Saturday again that it's not a good team yet.
Northwestern scored 28 points off four Illini turnovers, and two Illinois penalties prolonged Northwestern scoring drives. The Wildcats (6-6, 5-4 Big Ten) gained bowl eligibility with the win, their 10th over the Illini in the series' last 14 games.
The Illini allowed 278 rushing yards on 49 attempts with two Northwestern players topping 100 yards. Junior tailback Justin Jackson (173 yards, three touchdowns) notched his third 100-plus yard game against Illinois, and freshman John Moten IV ran for a career-high 128 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries.
Illinois ended a miserable 29-possession scoreless streak -- and 33-possession scoreless streak -- that spanned three games with Wes Lunt's 19-yard touchdown pass to Malik Turner with 7:29 left in the second quarter. The Illini's previous touchdown was Sam Mays' game-winning grab against Michigan State three weeks prior. During that streak, Illinois was outscored 97-3, punted 18 times, turned it over eight times (four interceptions, two fumbles and two turnovers on down), had two possessions end at the half and missed one field goal. The touchdown also allowed Illinois to complete its first kickoff since the opening kick of the Wisconsin game on Nov. 12.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1731550-five-illini-offseaso... After breaking the goal line for the first time in 144 minutes and six seconds of game time, Illinois cut the deficit to 21-14 by halftime with Reggie Corbin's eight-yard touchdown with just 0:27 left in the second quarter.
The Illini were on the doorstep of tying the game when Corbin fumbled inside the Northwestern 10-yard line. Though a Northwestern touchdown return on the play was negated by a penalty, the Wildcats scored on the ensuing drive giving them a 28-14 the Illini would not overcome.
Wes Lunt ended his career with a good performance, completing 28 of 54 passes for 377 yards and two touchdowns. Junior receiver Malik Turner had 11 catches for a career-high 164 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Senior Justin Hardee ended his career with a career-high 125 yards on a career-high nine catches.
Reggie Corbin led Illinois with 70 rushing yards on 21 carries.
Smith's 3-9 overall record and 2-7 Big Ten record are the best marks for a non-interim first-year Illini head coach since Lou Tepper went 6-5-1 overall and 4-3-1 Big Ten in 1992.
What it means
An unprecedented hiring (especially timing-wise) and too many injuries to an already weak roster made 2016 basically a "lost" season for Illinois. Smith's staff coached players it didn't recruit and that didn't fit their schemes. Both sides took too long to adjust to learn and adjust to each other. The 24 seniors end far-too-turbulent careers that featured three head coaches -- and, for some, a handful of position coaches. They deserved better. The on-field product this season hasn't helped Smith's sell to recruits. But his real work and the rebuild is really just beginning as he and his staff hit the recruiting trail next week. Illini need size and speed across the depth chart.
What went right
Lunt -- who had led most of the Illini's terrible scoreless streak -- finally got into a rhythm with timing hitch routes along the sideline against Northwestern's soft coverage. He missed some throws but played well for the most part.
Corbin -- carrying the load in place of injured starter Kendrick Foster -- made some nifty cuts and tough runs. Turner battled through injuries and dominated a weak Northwestern secondary, and Hardee finished his career with his best performance.
Dawuane Smoot put together good film for the NFL. The potential first-round pick had 2.0 sacks, giving him 5.0 sacks for the season (all during the final seven weeks of the season). The numbers don't illustrate how consistently disruptive he was this season. Gimel President also made his case for a camp tryout with two big plays in the backfield, including a strip sack.
What went wrong
Kendrick Foster left the game after just one carry. The junior running back crumpled to the ground without being touched and dragged his right leg. Foster was the best Illini story of 2016 and a shoo-in for the Offensive MVP -- and even that ends on a negative note. Also, Ke'Shawn Vaughn did not travel with the team due to an unspecified injury. At some point, Illinois will get more effective immunization from the injury bug -- right?
Special teams. Ryan Frain 17-yard punt set up a short field, and Northwestern marched 59 yards in eight plays to take a 7-0 lead. Darius Mosely fumbled a third-quarter punt return with the score 21-14
Penalties. A Carroll Phillips offsides on a failed third down also extended the first Northwestern scoring drive. Then, an illegal substitution (12 men on the field) nullified a Hardy Nickerson interception that would've given Illinois the ball inside the Northwestern 15. Stanley Green was ejected for targeting in the third quarter.
Turnovers. Turner fumbled near midfield and Corbin fumbled inside the Northwestern 10-yard line, which the Wildcats scooped and scored. Luckily for Illinois, the Wildcats committed a penalty on the return, calling back the return to their own 16-yard line.
Run defense. Northwestern ran over and around the Illini defense most of the day. The front seven struggled to disengage from blockers. With most of the top contributors set to graduate, this problem will only get worse.
Rushing offense. Illinois again struggled to get the run game going. The Illini need much more strength and physicality. Incoming recruits Larry Boyd and Vederian Lowe certainly fit the bill.
The Illini staff enters a crucial offseason by hitting the recruiting trail next week. The Illini are in need of talent upgrades across the board and currently have 11 commits to make up the country's current 60th ranked recruiting class (13th Big Ten). They have 14 scholarships left to fill with huge holes at defensive end, defensive back and quarterback -- and more upgrades needed at receiver and offensive line. Most of the staff will be on the road (or in the air) by Sunday with Smith focusing on Chicago and St. Louis during the next week. There are 67 days until Smith signs his first class. That's when the rebuild will officially begin.