Illinois Coach Ron Zook was beside himself afterward.
"I wish I had the answer. If they've got to blame someone, blame me. This is a good football team, but we didn't play well all the time. It's not always the best players that win, it's the best team that wins."
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald will never forgive Illinois for telling him he wasn't good enough to play for the Illini when he was a high school senior in suburban Chicago. He doesn't even use the Illinois name when referring to them. He made sure his team kept its focus throughout the game, ensuring a 9-3 record and likely January 1 bowl game.
All year long, Coach Zook and his staff worked diligently to prevent a collapse as has been Illinois' frequent pattern the year after a Rose Bowl or other BCS bowl appearance. All year, the Illini worked hard to live up to expectations and prove they were not one-hit wonders. Unfortunately, the harder they worked to prevent a losing season, the more it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Illinois began the game as tight as a drum. It appeared they were running in quicksand. More than likely, their intense need to win made them stiff rather than fluid, fearful rather than self-assured. In contrast, the Wildcats played like a confident team accustomed to having things go their way. They were relaxed and maximized their athletic ability.
Illinois won the third quarter, but Northwestern won the other three. As has happened in all their losses, the Illini got behind early and couldn't catch up. And as usual it was turnovers, special teams breakdowns and inconsistent play at critical times that doomed the visitors.
Illinois quarterback Juice Williams was his usual enigmatic self. On the one hand, he broke Illinois' single season total offense record and is the first Illini quarterback ever to rush for more than 2000 yards in a career. He completed 20 of 36 passes for 212 yards while rushing 94 yards in 25 carries.
However, he threw another interception and was stripped of the ball in a critical situation late in the game when the Illini needed a score. And he was practically nonexistent in the disastrous first half. It seemed as if he could never find an open man when back to pass, especially on third and long when the Wildcats blitzed him effectively. It was a pattern repeated frequently throughout the year, and it put the Illini too far behind to catch up.
Illinois did fire up at halftime, and Juice was instructed to run the ball on draws and inside options. This opened up the offense for him and allowed the Illini to gain their only touchdown on a one yard plunge by Jason Ford. He was more effective passing in the second half, in part because Northwestern played a prevent defense with the lead.
Williams got no ground help from his running backs. Daniel Dufrene, Ford, and Arrelious Benn combined for only 29 rushing yards. Dufrene did lead the receivers with 6 catches for 51 yards, while Jeff Cumberland added 60 yards on 5 grabs and Benn totaled four receptions for 43 yards.
Northwestern's offense was efficient in its dink and dunk approach. Senior C. J. Bacher went over 7000 career passing yards by completing 22 of 33 attempts for 230 yards and two touchdowns.
And his three senior receivers Eric Peterman, Ross Lane and Rasheed Ward carried out the game plan well with 8, 6 and 5 short receptions respectively to keep the chains moving. And when Illinois expected pass, Stephen Simmons rushed for 69 important yards.
Zook praised Northwestern afterward.
"You've got to give them credit. They did a good job, and we didn't."
Defensively, Vontae Davis grabbed an interception and led the Illini with 9 tackles in what may have been his last Illini game. Senior Brit Miller added 8 tackles and broke up a pass in his last game. Bo Flowers added 7 tackles replacing the injured Donsay Hardeman. And senior Rodney Pittman played great in his last effort as an Illini.
Illini players and coaches will have the month of December to stew over missed opportunities as they watch other teams enjoy bowl trips. Hopefully, they will hunger to make next season a memorable one.
"This is a great group of guys, and it's a great team coming back," Zook reminded. "But it's our job as a coaching staff to make sure we are hitting on all cylinders and playing the way we are capable of playing."