A controversial interception by Northwestern's Sherrick McManis on a pass attempt from Jacob Charest to Jarred Fayson ended an Illinois attempt to pull out a victory. Officials ruled Fayson was still juggling the ball while laying on his back, and McManis stole it from him before rolling out of bounds.
Whether the call was correct or not, Illini coach Ron Zook would not blame the officials for the loss.
"We didn't play well enough to win. There's no use in blaming people. That's what we've been doing all year. If you're gonna blame someone, blame me. We had our chances to win, and we didn't do it."
The Illini had outstanding field position with their first two possessions. Arrelious Benn returned the opening kickoff to the 41 yard line, but the Illini went three and out. Northwestern couldn't advance the ball either, and their punter's shank gave the Illini the ball at the NW 35 yard line.
Charest hit Fayson for 20 yards to keep the drive alive, but his third down lob pass to Benn in the endzone was ruled out of bounds. Matt Eller then missed the 23 yard chip shot field goal attempt.
Charest wasn't sharp in the first half.
"That's the one thing you worry about a first time starter," Zook reminded. "He thought there was a pretty good chance he would be the starter. It's a lot different all week long than coming off the bench."
Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Schultz was likely cautious at first with play calling to keep the pressure off Charest.
"We tried to make sure we got him off to a good start and give him things he can handle," Schultz said.
Northwestern missed two field goals in the first half. The Illini drew first blood with a 30 yard Derek Dimke field goal after three quick openers by Mikel Leshoure and a 13 yard scramble by Charest kept the drive alive.
It appeared the Illini would enter halftime with a lead. A Mike Kafka pass on fourth and one fell incomplete to give the ball back to the Illini on the 43 yard line with 1:07 left to play. But Charest' pass attempt to Benn was intercepted on first down by Nate Williams. He explained his mistake afterward.
"I stared him down. He was open, there was a hole. I just stared him down too long and waited a little too late. They made the play."
Unfortunately for the Illini, that interception ignited a major momentum reversal, and the Wildcats went 54 yards in just five plays. Zeke Markshausen caught a 28 yard touchdown from Kafka with 17 seconds left in the half to give NW a lead they would never relinquish.
Eddie McGee replaced Charest for the first two series of the second half. He gained 42 yards in 7 rushing attempts but missed his only pass and couldn't generate any points. Schultz said there were two reasons for the change.
"We just wanted to shake things up and give Jacob a chance to collect his thoughts. And we thought there were some things he (McGee) could do with his feet."
Northwestern scored after each McGee series. Keeping the Illini off balance with a hurry-up offense and a variety of quick passes, they met little resistance during this segment.
A 52 yard bomb to Andrew Brewer helped set up a Kafka touchdown plunge. And a strong running game plus a roughing the passer penalty on third down kept their next drive alive. Freshman Arby Fields scored from the one to make it 21-3.
With time precious in the fourth quarter, Charest re-entered and ran the 2-minute offense to perfection on two consecutive drives. Jason Ford ran effectively, and Charest hit four straight passes, three to Benn. Charest called his own number on third and five from the NW ten yard line, his draw making the score 21-9 as the Illini missed a two point conversion.
After a third NW field goal miss, Charest took the team 80 yards in 2:18. Jason Ford ran over several defenders on his way to a 20 yard gain. Charest then hit Chris Duvalt racing down the sideline to convert a 32 yard touchdown play with 4:06 left in the game.
The Illini forced a Northwestern punt for one last effort. However, on fourth and one Charest threw low toward the sideline to Fayson. He appeared to catch the ball in his hands and rolled over onto his back. McManis flew in, grabbed the ball out of Fayson's hands for the interception to end Illinois' last threat.
Northwestern outgained the Illini offense 444 to 374 yards. The Illini outgained the Wildcats on the ground with 212 yards, but NW amassed 305 passing yards. Kafka was 23-37. Markshausen caught six balls for 104 yards, and Sidney Stewart added 49 yards in five opportunities.
Charest ended up 14-27 for 145 yards with one TD passing, one TD rushing, and two interceptions. But he was 9 for 13 in the second half. Leshoure led the Illini with 77 yards in 13 carries, while Ford added 67 in 14 tries. Benn led receivers with 4 catches for 31 yards. Duvalt and Ramsey each added three receptions.
Safety Garrett Edwards led the defense with 12 tackles but had a costly roughing the passer penalty. Tavon Wilson added 11 tackles. Linebackers Nathan Bussey and Ian Thomas joined tackle Corey Liuget with seven tackles apiece. End Whitney Mercilus and Liuget were each credited with 1.5 tackles for loss.
Without injured quarterback Juice Williams in the starting lineup, offensive inconsistency was expected. While the game still goes in the loss column, Charest gave Illini fans hope for the future. Schultz was pleased with the effort.
"I know the game didn't turn out the way we want it, but I think you're kind of seeing Jacob grow up in front of your eyes. See him getting better and see him take the steps. We're pleased with that. We've just got to continue that trend."
Illini bowl hopes are now shattered. They end the Big 10 Conference season at a disappointing 2-6. Remaining are games at 10-0 Cincinnati and a home finale with Fresno State. Zook expects the team to be fired up for these games.
"The seniors have two games left in their life. With the young guys, we're gonna start working toward next year."