CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP)- Justin Jackson ran for 144 yards and a touchdown and No. 23 Northwestern won its seventh straight, beating Illinois 42-17 on Saturday.
The bowl-bound Wildcats (9-3, 7-2 Big Ten) held Illinois scoreless after giving up a first-quarter touchdown, and put 42 straight points on the board.
“I thought we would have to weather a storm there early, and we did,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “After that, I thought our defense was absolutely dominant.”
With bowl season ahead, Fitzgerald said he hopes dominant back-to-back wins over Minnesota and Illinois put to rest what he believes is a negative narrative about the Wildcats that followed their early-season 41-17 loss to Duke.
“I would prefer if that narrative gets changed. This is one of the hottest teams in the country, a team that’s dominated back to back weeks,” he said. “I think this is a pretty attractive team, I hope we get to field a lot of calls. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t.”
Jackson finished the regular season with 1,154 yards, one of two Big Ten players along with former Wisconsin star Ron Dayne to top 1,000 yards for four straight seasons. Clayton Thorson was 13 of 21 for 140 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
In a quiet stadium where the Illinois band far outnumbered the student section, the Illini (2-10, 0-9) lost their 10th straight and finished winless in the Big Ten for the first time since 2012. Second-year coach Lovie Smith said that, given his team’s youth, a difficult season was likely.
“You have to look at what we’re talking about, 15, 16 (freshman starters). Were you expecting a national championship? Probably not,” he said. “We knew we had to rebuild our program, and that’s what we’ve been doing. And that’s what I think we will continue to do.”
Northwestern took the lead for good at 14-7 with 8:03 left in the second quarter on Jelani Roberts’ 5-yard touchdown run.
When defensive end Joe Gaziano knocked the ball out of Illinois quarterback Cam Thomas’ hands and fellow defensive end Samdup Miller scooped it up and punched the ball across the goal line for a third-quarter touchdown and a 21-7 lead, the game was out of reach.
Illinois opened up a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter on Thomas’ 23-yard keeper. The lead was Illinois’ first since the first quarter of its loss to Iowa on Oct. 7, six-plus games.
The Illini rolled up almost 30 percent of its 239 yards of offense on its opening, 69-yard drive.
Thomas, a freshman making his second start, finished 14-31 for 139 yards and two interceptions. He ran for 46 yards on 18 carries.
Northwestern: A week after the Wildcats used 10 ball carriers in a blowout win over Minnesota, they let Jackson and Jeremy Larkin, who had 71 yards and a touchdown on nine carries, carry the load on Saturday. The two ground down a thin Illinois defense. The three turnovers forced by the Wildcats were big, too, leading to 14 points. Northwestern finishes second in the Big Ten West, behind undefeated Wisconsin.
Illinois: Season No. 2 of the Lovie Smith era came to an end with one fewer win than Illinois managed in its first season under the NFL veteran. On the final Saturday of their season, though, there were signs of life for the Illini. Thomas sparked the offense early and had 60 yards rushing at halftime (though he finished with less). And junior linebackers Tre Watson and Del’Shawn Phillips combined for 21 tackles. But the strain of a long season showed late in the game, when defensive tackle Tito Odenigbo threw a penalty flag back at an official following a Northwestern touchdown, and was ejected.
Northwestern: The Wildcats will wait to learn which bowl they will be playing in, the third straight year Northwestern has left the Illini game knowing a bowl game was ahead. The Wildcats ended last season with a 31-24 Pinstripe Bowl win over Pittsburgh.
Illinois: With just two wins, Illinois’ season is over. The last bowl trip for the Illini was in 2014, a 35-18 loss to Louisiana Tech in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl.
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