Much of the attention will go to Dan Persa, and rightfully so, after he put up four touchdowns against the Illini defense en route to a 28-10 lead.
The senior was back in action for the first time since rupturing his Achilles last year against Iowa, and he showed the mobility and accuracy that earned him All-Big Ten honors last season.
However, when Persa was pulled from the game due to a hit in the fourth quarter, backup Kain Colter performed in the clutch, rebounding from a rough game against Army. He helped put Wildcats up with just over a minute left in the game.
This loss wasn't on the quarterbacks, as the Army game may have been. Northwestern clearly has one of the best quarterbacks in the conference in Persa and an emerging backup in Colter.
Running Backs: B+
After an abysmal showing against Army, Northwestern rebounded to put together a solid ground game against the no. 14 Illinois rush defense.
True freshman Treyvon Green led the team with 68 yards and Mike Trumpy rebounded nicely with a 66-yard performance before being injured in the third quarter.
Even Jacob Schmidt helped out, running the Wildcats' final touchdown in from six yards out.
After quiet outings in each of the first three games—much of that was due to Colter's inability to throw—the receiving corps put up big numbers against the Illini.
Demetrius Fields was the only other receiver to catch a pass, meaning Persa will need to start spreading the ball out more. However, it was a solid day for the senior-laden group.
Offensive Line: C+
The offensive line was the sold disappointment on the Northwestern offense, as it struggled to give Persa time to throw and ultimately led to his getting hit numerous times.
Persa probably should have been hit more, but his excellent maneuvering skills helped him escape pressure and make some plays that few quarterbacks can.
The line did a good job of opening up holes for the run game, but it struggled in its main goal for today—pass protection—against a strong Illini defensive front.
Defensive Line: A
Before this game, I wrote that the defensive line would have to step up if the Wildcats wanted to win, and step up it did.
Unlike last year, when the unit gave up 330 rushing yards to star Illini running back Mikel Leshoure, Illinois was held to just 118 yards on the ground and
The line did a good job of pressuring quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase as well, coming up with four sacks and flushing him out of the pocket for most of the game.
Like the defense as a whole, the linebackers struggled in pass defense but came up big against the run.
The unit did a solid job getting pressure on Scheelhaase and Collin Ellis, who recently came off a thumb injury, delivered a crushing blow to the Illini quarterback.
For a group that was relatively quiet, the linebackers did their job well, but didn't provide any shock value.
This was supposed to be the best part of the Northwestern defense.
The secondary was supposed to be what held the Illini offense in check, especially against Scheelhaase's average passing skills.
Instead, the unit surrendered 391 passing yards and three touchdowns through the air and receiver A.J. Jenkins torched the Wildcats for 268 receiving yards.
This unit was supposed to lead the defense, and instead it was the Achilles heel. That has to change for the Wildcats to be able to compete against the Big Ten's top quarterbacks.
Special Teams: B-
There was nothing special about the Wildcats' special teams play today, as NU didn't attempt a field goal but struggled in the rest of the kicking game.
Brandon Williams had punts of 11 and 27 yards. Jeff Budzien made all of his extra points, but came up with a very shot kick with a minute left in the game that game Illinois great starting field position.
Special teams have always seemed to haunt Northwestern in close games, and the Wildcats must improve their play in that area of the game if they want to come away with close wins.