Evanston, Ill. —Illinois has been playing lights out football the last few weeks and putting everybody on notice.
Illinois dominated from start to finish, beating Northwestern, 41-3 in Evanston on Saturday afternoon.
The Illini (8-4 overall, 5-4 BIG1) entered with a chance to win the Big Ten West and advance to the conference championship for the first time. The Boilermakers beat Indiana 30-16 to win the division title and will play Michigan at Indianapolis next Saturday.
“This year we were a game shy of making it to Indy, and a lot of positive steps for our program,” Bielema said, “I couldn’t be more excited about this team and where we’re at, but more importantly where we’re going.
“We lost four conference games that were one-score games,” Bielema added. “That will motivate and galvanize, whatever, you want to say to myself and the coaching staff during the offseason as much as anything — those four that got away from us.”
Safety Sydney Brown raced 53 yards for a touchdown after Northwestern quarterback Cole Freeman fumbled, then sprinted in for a 39-yard score off an pick, both in the third quarter.
Brown’s twin brother, running back Chase Brown ran it in from the 2-yard touchdown and finished with 61 yards on 19 rushes. He entered leading the nation in yards rushing with 1,582 yards but fell short of Mikel Leshoure’s single-season school record of 1,697 in 2010.
Illinois’s defense forced six turnovers, including a scoop and score and pick six from Brown, while Devon Witherspoon had two interceptions in the 38-point victory.
The Illini got on the board early in the first quarter, using a 10-play drive to find the end zone. Reggie Love III capped off the possession, running the ball in from two yards out for his second touchdown of the season to put the them ahead, 7-0.
Still, the Illini took a big step forward under second-year coach Bret Bielema and now look forward to playing in a postseason bowl game….Somewhere
The Illini pushed their lead to three possessions late in the second quarter. After taking over near midfield, a 32-yard Love pickup moved Illinois inside the Northwestern 5-yard line before Tommy DeVito called his own number to find the end zone and extend the Illinois lead to 17-0.
Witherspoon picked off his second interception of the contest on a Wildcat hail mary as time expired in the opening half. Illinois headed into the break leading 17-0, led by three takeaways and 83 rushing yards on 10 carries from Love.
Illinois extended its advantage early in the third quarter on a 43-yard Griffin field goal, but it was the Illini defense that scored the team’s next points. Brown recovered a fumble and returned it 53 yards for a scoop and score, extending the Illini’s lead to 27-0 midway through the third frame.
Brown struck again with his second touchdown of the game on Northwestern’s next drive, this time returning his second interception of the evening 39 yards for a pick six. Illinois’ lead grew to 34-0 on the play with just over four minutes to play in the third quarter.
“I love interceptions, that’s always on my mind,” Brown said. “Anyway I can get in the box (score), that’s fun.”
DeVito threw for 136 yards on 12-for-18 passing and ran for a touchdown. Caleb Griffin kicked a pair of field goals as Illinois finished with eight or more wins for the first time since the 2007 Rose Bowl team finished 9-4.
The Illini have a winning conference record for the first time since 2007 when they went 6-2.
The Illini handed Northwestern its 11th straight loss following a season-opening win over Nebraska in Dublin, Ireland. The Wildcats, 1-8 in the Big Ten, managed only Adam Stage’s field goal.
Illinois: The Illini continue to progress under coach Bielema, improving on their 5-7 overall and 4-5 conference records in 2021.
Illinois peaked at 7-1, 4-1 Big Ten and No. 14 in the national after a 26-9 win over Nebraska on Oct. 29.
Northwestern: Error-prone and injury-raked, Northwestern became less competitive as the season wore on and the losses grew more lopsided.
Illinois: The Illini expect a bowl invitation. After that, they’ll host Toledo in their 2023 season opener.
Northwestern: Opens it 2023 scheduled on Sept. 2 at Rutgers. It should be the final season for the Wildcats in 97-year-old Ryan Field, slated to be demolished and replaced with a privately funded 35,000-seat stadium.