Illini end regular season with disappointing loss to rival Northwestern
Champaign, Ill. - Senior Day just isn’t a day that leaves a good taste in people’s mouths recently at Memorial Stadium.
Following the record-tying 63-0, loss to Iowa on Senior Day last season, Illinois followed up this season’s Senior Day, on the back of a much more successful campaign, with a, 29-10 loss to a now 3-9 Northwestern team.
Head coach Lovie Smith and his players were disappointed to finish the regular season, which sent their program to a bowl game for the first time since 2014, by getting dominated on both sides of the ball by their rival.
“Disappointment doesn’t even seem like a strong word for what we did today,” Smith said. “First off, you have to give Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern’s team a lot of credit. They came in and really played well in all phases. It always starts in the run game, the lines on both sides, and they dominated us both ways. Whenever you can run the football like that, when you chew up the clock; and it’s not like we were doing a lot with the ball when we got it and not a lot of good things happened for us today.
“Lot of disappointment. When you have a game like this, you just don’t want to finish the season up with this bad taste in your mouth and that’s the good thing about where we are. We get another chance to make this right.”
The time of possession tells the story. Northwestern held the ball for 41:18 minutes while Illinois had the ball for a mere 18:12. And when the Wildcats had possession, they ran all over the Illini defense.
Northwestern finished with 378-yards on the ground on 5.8-yards per carry. Quarterback Andrew Marty only threw for 55-passing yards but ran for 111-yards. Running backs Coco Azema and Drake Anderson added 123- and 87-yards rushing respectively.
Senior linebacker Dele Harding, one of the top run stuffers in the nation, blamed the Illini’s defensive struggles on poor tackling.
“Really just tackling is what it came down to,” Harding said. “They went for it a lot. Tackling was a major part. Allowing the offense to fall for an extra 2- or 3-yards which would set them up for a 4th-and-1 and potentially get the first down, so that was a major contributor to the loss.”
The head coach agreed. According to PFF, the Cats amassed a whopping 268 yards on the ground after contact. That's the ball game in a nutshell.
“Eventually you have to tackle,” Lovie said. “Not many plays where we didn’t have someone in position. They ran hard. We got to do a better job of tackling. It’s kind of as simple as that. Those plays went for a lot more than they should have.”
The Illini defense also had a very costly mistake. Facing 3rd and 9 at the Illinois 10-yard line, Marty was picked off by Illini safety Stanley Green in the end zone. But a personal foul negated the turnover and gave the Cats first and goal. Two plays later, Marty plunged into the end zone and Northwestern increased the lead to 23-10.
The Illinois offense did nothing to aid its ailing defense, putting up a anemic total of 160-total yards. While the Cats ran roughshod over Illinois, the Illini never got things going on the ground, finishing with a meager 14 yards.
Much like the Illinois defensive line, the offensive line also got dominated at the line of scrimmage.
“They played a great defensive game,” right tackle Alex Palczewski said. “They just outmatched us.
Quarterback Matt Robinson got the start for the injured Brandon Peters and had a rough day. Robinson threw for 100-yards on 8-of-17 passing attempts. He was eventually pulled in favor of freshman Isaiah Williams late in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach.
Robinson said Northwestern’s defense didn’t do anything Illinois hadn’t prepared for in practice the week leading up to the game.
“No, I mean they showed some new blitzes, but that was about it,” Robinson said. “Other than that, it was the same team we saw on film. I think we just didn’t execute.
With the unit riddled with injuries, two Illinois receivers did post career highs in both catches and receiving yards. Senior Caleb Reams had five receptions for 57 yards. Freshman Caskey Washington had four receptions for 55 yards.
But the Illini just couldn't sustain drives and put points on the board.
The Wildcats’ defensive box was consistently stacked with seven, eight or more defenders, making the job of running back Dre Brown more difficult. Brown didn’t use that as an excuse, however, noting Illinois has ran successfully against stacked boxes earlier this season.
“We’ve seen that all year, it’s hard, but we have to find a way to execute and I didn’t think we executed that well today and that’s why we lost,” Brown said.
The silver lining is that Illinois’ season isn’t over. The team gets a chance to bounce back with a potential win in a bowl game. The season is over for the Cats, however, and they finished with a dominating performance.
“You know for Northwestern, this was its bowl game, and they played very well,” Palczewski said.
Illinois will find out soon what their bowl destination will be. The most mentioned possibilities have been the Pinstripe Bowl in NYC, the Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif., and Quicklane Bowl in Detroit. The 15 extra practices will be good for the team.
“Today we have a bad taste in our mouth, but we get a chance to make it right,” Smith said. “So now, in a way, we get a chance to start a fresh season and we have a one-game season coming up and how we go into the offseason."
"That’s not going to take away anything from what we’ve done right now. We’re a bowl team. That’s progress with our program. We still want to be a bowl team that finishes it off the right way. A chance to have a winning record is big for us.”