On a rather balmy mid-November afternoon, Northwestern (7-4, 4-3) defeated Illinois (3-7, 2-6) by a final score of 21-16 to claim the very first Land of Lincoln Trophy, after bringing home the last edition of the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk last year in Evanston.
The game was also an important milestone for the Wildcats, as NU is now guaranteed of a winning record on the year and a bowl berth (the bowl pairings will be announced on Dec. 6).
The game started off as a field position battle, with the two teams combining for just three points in the first 29:43 of the game, although Northwestern managed to grab the lead just before halftime on a 28-yard Mike Kafka pass to Zeke Markshausen following an Illinois turnover. Prior to that, the Wildcats had missed two field goals, while the Illini missed one of their own on a drive that started at the NU 35 after Stefan Demos shanked a punt.
In fact, it was quite a forgettable day for NU kicker Stefan Demos, who missed all three of his field goal attempts of 47, 50, and 31 yards, and had the aforementioned shanked punt that went for all of 12 yards.
The Illini special teams efforts weren't much better, as they missed a 23-yard field goal and had two punts go for touchbacks instead of pinning Northwestern deep.
Speaking of pinning NU deep, the drive of the game came in the third quarter after Illinois pinned NU at their own one-yard line. Following a false start penalty, the Wildcats had the ball as close to their goal line as possible. Here is the sequence of events that followed:
1st-and-10 at NU 1: Kafka run for 2 yards.
2nd-and-8 at NU 3: Scott Concannon run for 13 yards. First Down
1st-and-10 at NU 16: Kafka pass to Andrew Brewer for 11 yards. First Down
1st-and-10 at NU 27: Kafka pass to Brewer for 52 yards. First Down
1st-and-10 at Ill 21: Kafka pass to Markshausen for 20 yards. First Down
1st-and-Goal at Ill 1: Kafka run for 1 yard. Touchdown
That score put NU up 14-3. Northwestern would drive for another touchdown on their next drive, a 12-play 80-yard drive capped off by an Arby Fields TD run (his first touchdown since the Purdue game).
The Wildcats were going to the air and carving up the Illini defense thanks to Kafka's precision strikes and had built up a 21-3 early in the fourth quarter.
As anyone who has watched the 'Cats knows, though, NU finds a way to make every game interesting.
Illinois QB Jason Charest, who started the game but was pulled after a rather poor showing in the first half, returned in the fourth quarter and promptly led the Illini on an 11-play 80-yard touchdown scoring drive, capped off by his own 10-yard TD run. Illinois went for two to try and cut their deficit to only 10, but failed.
On the ensuing kickoff, Illinois made a surprise onside kickoff attempt, but NU special teams member Hunter Bates astutely jumped up and grabbed the ball before any Illini players got close. That gave NU the ball at the Illinois 40-yard line with a chance to seal the game, as they led by 12 with just over 10 minutes left to play.
NU moved the ball down to the Illinois 14-yard line, helped out by a pass interference penalty, and set themselves up for a makeable 31-yard field goal that would have put NU up by 15 with just about six-and-a-half minutes to play (which would have forced Illinois to score two TDs and convert a two-point conversion on at least one of them).
Instead, Demos missed his third field goal of the day and the 'Cats gave Illinois a chance to get back into the game.
The Illini didn't waste their first opportunity, promptly driving 80 yards in under two-and-a-half minutes for a touchdown off of a Charest pass from 32 yards out, and cutting the NU lead to 5 (21-16).
With just over four minutes to play and Illinois holding all three of their timeouts, they decided to kick off to the 'Cats and force NU to move the ball or else give the ball back with a chance for Illinois to win.
Northwestern gained a first down and burned almost three minutes of time, but were forced to punt as they predictably kept the ball on the ground and couldn't churn out another first. Illinois got the ball back on their own 21 with 1:14 left on the clock and no timeouts.
After two incomplete deep balls, Charest completed his third down pass attempt and set up 4th-and-1 with the clock ticking.
Charest completed a pass to Jarred Fayson that would have been a first down, but Sherrick McManis immediately tackled Fayson and came up with the ball. The officials ruled it an interception, later saying that the receiver never completely possessed the ball while McManis pulled it off of his chest for an interception.
The play was reviewed and the ruling on the field stood, giving NU the ball back and allowing the 'Cats to down the football, run out the clock, and come away with their seventh win of the 2009 season.
Player of the Game
QB Mike Kafka (23-of-37 passing for 305 yards and 1 TD; 7 rushes for 12 yards and 1 TD) : Despite still being hampered with his hamstring injury, his spot-on passing allowed the Wildcats to move the ball well in the middle of the game and pile up a lead that would be good enough for the win. He was a big reason that Northwestern avoided any turnovers on the day, the first time this season that NU gave zero turnovers in a game. Although some points were left on the field thanks to three missed field goals, he and the offense did enough for the 'Cats to take home a big win.
Northwestern Honorable Mentions
WR Zeke Markshausen (6 catches for 104 yards and 1 TD): Although he dropped the ball on a fourth down late in the second quarter, Zeke responded nicely, grabbing a 28-yard pass just seconds later (on the drive after a Nate Williams interception) and putting NU ahead 7-3 at the half. Once again, he proved to be the Wildcats' most reliable receiver.
RB Scott Concannon (9 carries for 37 yards for 4.1 yards per carry): Despite not being an every-down running back and not putting up huge numbers, Concannon does what it takes to help NU churn out victories. He had two vital carries to help propel the 'Cats to a win: the 13-yard run with NU backed up against its own end zone, and the eight-yard run to gain a first down and help eat more clock near the end of the game.
CB Sherrick McManis (5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 interception): McManis racked up his team-leading fourth interception of the year, which put an end to Illinois' last-gasp comeback attempt. He also grabbed a big tackle for a loss earlier in the game and helped limit Illinois to just 162 yards passing.
Offensive Line: The 'Cats only allowed one sack on the day, despite having Kafka essentially immobilized, and opened up enough room to generate 139 rushing yards. The line finally looks like its gelling, and its solid performance was definitely a reason that the 'Cats avoided any turnovers on the day.
What to Work On
Special Teams: After having started the year making 14-of-16 field goal attempts with his only two misses being blocked, Stefan Demos had quite a forgettable day, missing three attempts and shanking a punt. Hopefully he got it out of his system, and thankfully the NU offense did enough for the Wildcats to pull out the win.
Defensive Line: Although the Northwestern defense limited Illinois to just 16 points on the day, they didn't generate much pressure up front, grabbing just one sack while allowing 4.7 yards per rush. They'll face an even tougher test against Wisconsin's large front next week as they look to open up holes for John Clay, the Big Ten's leading rusher.
Finishing: Yes, NU won the game thanks to a big defensive play, but the 'Cats didn't do themselves any favors by letting Illinois score two TDs in the final quarter. The Wildcats had multiple chances to come up with that big defensive play earlier, the offense could have put the icing on the cake by getting the ball in the end zone, and the special teams blew their chance to make a short field goal.
For the second straight week, NU fans have heard plenty of whining from the opposition over how the officials called the game. Once again, a team that finds itself relying on a judgment call or two from the officials probably hasn't put itself in a position to win the game.
There was an arguable non-call as LB Bryce McNaul made contact with Illinois' intended receiver on a failed two-point attempt. But, it looked like the receiver intentionally slowed and initiated the contact, while McNaul made no effort to impede the receiver (he did make a move on the ball, though, by batting it down cleanly).
And on Illinois' fourth down pass attempt, it was hard to tell exactly what happened, but the officials were in the best position to call the play. The referee explained it well after the game when he said that the receiver never clearly possessed the ball and McManis grabbed the loose ball off of the receiver's chest for the interception.
In the end, Northwestern did what it took to win the game while Illinois did not.
Turnovers: The 'Cats moved to 5-0 on the year when winning the turnover battle (two turnovers to no giveaways), as they grabbed two interceptions (half the number that Illinois has had during the entire year.
All-time run: With the win, NU clinched back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1995-96 and back-to-back bowl berths for the second time ever. The current 22-14 run over the last three years is the best over such a period since 1929-1931 for the Wildcats.
Trophies: Northwestern grabbed the first edition of the Land of Lincoln Trophy; they won both the first and last editions of the now-retired Sweet Sioux Tomahawk trophy.
Third Down Conversions: After coming into the game converting 49.4 percent of their third downs, Northwestern converted just 35.7 percent (5-of-14) against Illinois. The defense played its part, though, allowing a conversion rate of just 28.6 percent (4-of-14).
With the win over Illinois, Northwestern guaranteed itself a bowl berth and all but guaranteed a warm weather destination. The most likely options are the Champs Sports Bowl (Orlando, FL on Dec. 29), the Alamo Bowl (San Antonio, TX on Jan. 2), and the Insight Bowl (Phoenix, AZ on Dec. 31).
The exact positioning mostly depends on whether the conference gets two teams into BCS games, which the Big Ten is in a good position to do.
Ohio State has locked up the automatic berth to the Rose Bowl, while Iowa (No. 13 in the BCS) and Penn State (No. 14 in the BCS) are both eligible and in good position for one to be selected for a BCS at-large berth if they win games next week in which they will likely be favored (against Minnesota and Michigan State, respectively).
If that happens, and the rest of the season plays out the way it's expected, then Northwestern is in prime position to go to the Champs Sports Bowl (the fourth selection in the conference, moving down to fifth if a Big Ten team gets a BCS at-large berth). If not, then the Insight Bowl is a likely destination since the Alamo Bowl hosted NU last year and would be hard-pressed to take them in two consecutive seasons.
No matter what happens in next week's Big Ten games (except the Indiana-Purdue game, which features two teams eliminated from bowl contention), the actual destination won't be obvious until they are announced during the afternoon of Sunday, Dec. 6, about three weeks from now.
It wasn't pretty, but once again Northwestern did what it took to pull out a gritty road win over a conference rival. The 'Cats have now won six of the last seven against Illinois and have guaranteed themselves both a winning record and a bowl berth this season.
But the work isn't done, as Northwestern faces a tough Wisconsin team next week to close the regular season. Yes, we know that the 'Cats will be playing somewhere warm in about a month-and-a-half, but the Wildcats need to bring it to try and finish the regular season on a strong note.