Following a week of subtle verbal jabs of this in-state rivalry, it was the Fighting Illini who left the field with the Land of Lincoln Trophy.
"I am disappointed, obviously, in the outcome and the finish," NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald said to the media after the game. "(There were) a lot of opportunities for us to go out and get the job done and we did not, which is disappointing."
After surrendering an 18-point lead, Northwestern would fight back late in the game. Following a failed fourth-down conversion attempt, the Wildcats would recover an Illinois fumble, and suddenly had new life with 2:58 remaining on the clock. Jacob Schmidt's six-yard touchdown run gave Northwestern a lead with 1:15 remaining in the game.
The Wildcats secondary struggled throughout the game, but had a chance to redeem themselves and secure a win in the final minute. They would falter, once again. Nathan Scheelhaase led Illinois to the endzone with 13 seconds remaining. That would be the difference in the game.
Scheelhaase posted 391 passing yards—268 of those going to A.J. Jenkins—against Northwestern's lowly secondary. Pat Fitzgerald had a hard time explaining the unit's overall performance.
"(I am) shocked," he said. "Nothing that we didn't work on and nothing that we didn't prepare for, which is probably the most disappointing aspect of the whole day."
Brian Peters echoed the frustration, blaming the poor performance on a lack of execution.
"From a secondary standpoint, we just have to execute," he said. "There are a few things they did that we had not seen, but everything we prepared for. From a coverage standpoint, we just have to do our jobs."
Senior quarterback Dan Persa was impressive in his return. He completed 10 of 14 passes for 123 yards and four touchdowns, but his day ended earlier after a sack in the third quarter. Persa would limp off the field, and would not return.
"I just got hit when I was throwing and I felt some pain at the bottom of my heel," Persa said. "I told my coach my achillies was starting to stiffen up and in the past, that's when setbacks have happened, so it was my decision."
In lieu of Persa, sophomore quarterback Kain Colter took over, completing his only two passes and rushing for 29 yards. More importantly, he gave the Wildcats a chance to win.
"I felt good leading those guys down and getting some points up and taking the lead," Colter said. "Unfortunately, we didn't get the ‘W' and it's a tough loss."
The Wildcats look ahead to their next challenge, as Heisman Trophy candidate Denard Robinson and the Michigan Wolverines travel to Ryan Field next weekend. Northwestern—now owning a 2-2 record—has not fallen under .500 since 2007.
• With the win, Illinois holds a 54-46-6 lead in the 105-game series with Northwestern.
• Junior running back Mike Trumpy was carted off the field with a leg injury in the third quarter, and was clearly in pain on the sidelines. Pat Fitzgerald called the injury a "sprained knee".
• Collin Ellis was impressive in his first career start, recording three tackles and a sack.
• Dan Persa's four passing touchdowns is a career-high. Also, Jeremy Ebert's three touchdown catches are also a career-high. He now has 15 touchdown catches in his career, and ranks third on the all-time Northwestern touchdown receptions list.
• Senior safety Brian Peters posted 13 tackles, which is the second-most in his career. The only time he had more? 18 tackles against Illinois in 2010.
• The Fighting Illini move to 5-0 for the first time since 1951, and their 18-point come-from-behind effort is the most since 2005.
• Illinois senior WR A.J. Jenkins posted a school-record 268 receiving yards and a career-best 12 receptions. He also finished with three touchdowns.