CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP)The conditions Saturday at Memorial Stadium were a depressing combination of rain, wind and flop sweat. The home crowd was leaving wet and unhappy after witnessing rival Northwestern upset the bowl-bound Illini 29-10.
But one thing remained constant. Illinois coach Lovie Smith was his usual stoic, almost upbeat self afterwards
”So, today wasn’t our best,” Smith said, smiling serenely. ”Disappointment is not a strong enough word for today. But hey, we’re going bowling.”
Not so for Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose team finishes the season in the Big Ten West cellar.
”We take this rivalry very seriously,” Fitzgerald said. ”We have a lot to be grateful for, especially for our seniors. That was five straight (wins) against our in-state rivals.”
Sophomore Andrew Marty, who came into camp last summer fourth on the depth chart, ran for 111 yards and two touchdowns while passing for another.
It was the first Big Ten win this season for Northwestern (3-9, 1-8). Illinois – 21-point favorites going into the game – finished the regular season 6-6 and 4-5 in the conference. Illinois is bowl-bound despite the loss and will learn its destination on Dec. 8.
Marty made his first career start for the Wildcats after replacing Hunter Johnson during last week’s game. Marty was the first Northwestern quarterback since Clayton Thorason in 2015 to gain at least 100 yards rushing in a game.
”I saw a leader,” said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. ”I saw a guy that was tough and physical. We’re seeing some of our younger players really come into their own.”
Smith, while not pleased with his team’s performance, heaped praise on Fitzgerald and the Wildcats.
”I have to give Pat Fitzgerald a lot of credit,” Smith said. ”They dominated us all day, in every way. Not a lot of good things were happening for us out there today.”
Northwestern put up 433 yards in total offense compared with only 160 for Illinois. Northwestern also dominated time of possession, 41:48 to 18:12.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for Northwestern was true freshman and former cornerback Coco Azema, who led the way on the ground for the Wildcats with 123 rushing yards and two scores on just seven carries.
”I originally played running back my whole life,” Azema said. ”If I could help the team, go ahead and do it. Whatever happens, happens.”
While not committing to a future in the backfield for Azema, Fitzgerald was clear the freshman will be a part of the plan. ”We’ll find a place to put him on the field.”
Illinois quarterback Matt Robinson, a sophomore starting in place of Brandon Peters (out with a concussion) was 8-of-17 passing for 108 yards.
”The quarterback situation really hurt them,” Fitzgerald said. ”But we’re on, what? Number four? I have little or no sympathy for (Illinois).”
Illinois’ running game, generally its offensive strength, was nonexistent on a cold, rainy and windy afternoon. Leading rusher Reggie Corbin carried the ball 7 times for minus-ten yards. Dre Brown carried 5 times for 17 yards and the Illini’s only touchdown.
Illinois had an abysmal first half and was lucky to only trail 10-7. Robinson was ineffective, going 1-of-5 passing for 29 yards, while Marty was 4 of 8 for 18 yards at the half. The Wildcats outgained the Illini 180 total yards to 30. Northwestern racked up 162 yards on the ground compared with Illinois’ 1.
THEY SAID IT
”This was an incredible physical display of how you should play Big Ten football,” said Fitzgerald.
”Hey, the big picture here is we are going bowling,” Smith said. ”And we get another chance to make things right.”
Northwestern: Played solely for pride – and its first conference win. The game also was perhaps a sign of better things to come with Marty at quarterback next season.
Illinois: Had little to gain, and played like it, offering up its worst overall game of the season.
Northwestern: Finished for the season.
Illinois: Will learn its bowl destination on Dec. 8.