EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) - Venric Mark rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown as Northwestern improved its chances for a berth in a New Year's Day bowl game, beating Illinois 50-14 on Saturday.
Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter threw for a career-high three touchdowns and the Wildcats (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten) reached nine victories for the first time since 2008.
Penalties and turnovers hurt Illinois (2-10, 0-8), which has lost nine straight and 14 in a row in Big Ten play. The Illini committed four turnovers - including three interceptions - and eight penalties in their season finale.
Northwestern captured the Land of Lincoln Trophy after losing to the Illini in the rivalry game the last two seasons.
Donovonn Young rushed for 74 yards and a touchdown for Illinois, which ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring offense in coach Tim Beckman's first season. Nathan Scheelhaase went 9 for 14 for 91 yards and two interceptions.
Northwestern led 27-14 at halftime, then scored early in the third quarter on Colter's 15-yard pass to Tyris Jones. The Wildcats turned the game into a rout with a 24-yard touchdown catch by a wide-open Paul Jorgensen from Colter for a 41-14 lead after Ibraheim Campbell intercepted Scheelhaase.
After another Illinois interception, Mike Trumpy scored on a 3-yard run for a 48-14 lead. Northwestern recorded a safety with 3 minutes left.
Despite struggling on offense all season, Illinois showed life early.
The Illini scored on the opening drive on Young's 15-yard run. The drive covered 78 yards and ate up 6:02 on the clock. A penalty nullified a 2-point conversion attempt, but the Illini nailed the extra-point kick.
Northwestern answered with Jeff Budzien's 44-yard field goal to make it 7-3.
The Wildcats took the lead for good 32 seconds later. Illinois fumbled on the kickoff return and Northwestern scored on Colter's 2-yard run for a 10-7 lead. Illinois ranked last in the Big Ten in turnover margin with minus-10.
Colter left the game with an apparent leg injury late in the first quarter. Trevor Siemian replaced him and threw an interception on his first pass attempt. Scheelhaase immediately threw a pick, and a sideline interference call on the Illini brought the Wildcats to the Northwestern 12. Beckman fell over and made contact with an official, resulting in the penalty. Northwestern scored on a 9-yard pass from Colter to Tony Jones for a 17-7 lead.
Reilly O'Toole took over at quarterback for Illinois early in the second quarter and scored on a 12-yard run to cut the lead to 17-14 with 10:55 left before halftime.
The Wildcats responded with a 3-yard touchdown run by Mark, capping a 79-yard drive to take a 24-14 lead.
Budzien kicked a 36-yard field goal for a 27-14 Northwestern halftime lead. The Wildcats reached the Illinois 9, but a clipping penalty pushed them back to the 24, and Northwestern had to settle for the field goal.
Tim Beckman quotes
"Just to start off, no way to end a rivalry by any means. Credit goes to Northwestern, Coach Fitzgerald did a great job. I think Mick McCall and Coach [Mike] Hankwitz did a great job offensively and defensively. I think the Wildcats played an outstanding game; played hard, made plays when they needed to make plays. So credit goes to where credit is due and that's them. We had too many penalties. Some things that you can't do. And we ended up doing those things. Turnovers, penalties, not tackling as well as we are capable of tackling, it just altogether wasn't one of our better games again and when you are playing a team right now that's won a lot of football games and is considered one of the top 25 or 30 teams in the country, then you're going to have to play a lot better than we did. But as we said to that football team, we are moving forward, we have to move forward. There's only one way you can go: forward. So our coaching staff will be out on the road tomorrow and we'll get it together and see what we have to do to get players in here to the University of Illinois, which is a great place, great institution, great football tradition, and do what we've got to do to get the program back on top."
On what goes through your mind with the season over:
"A lot. A lot. You know you're in this game for the players. You're in this game so you see the players experience things. Great things about this game, this game is an unbelievable game. You get so close to one another as a family. Kids coming over to your house eating Thanksgiving [dinner], just doing all those things. But the losing really hurts. You want your kids, just like how you want your sons, to experience winning. We didn't experience winning this year, it was one of the hardest years I've ever endured."
On what made Northwestern hard to stop:
"I think Mick does a great job of changing some things up. I've been here three times, I've played him three times. I can see the team getting better and better each year, no question, getting some good players involved in their program. I think they really believe in what they are doing. Their players do and you can see that."
On what needs to change for next year:
"Again, I think it's just the attitude, the belief, doing the little things you need to do to be successful. To me the game of football is controlling it. And what I mean by controlling it is taking care of turnovers, and taking care of creating turnovers and taking care of the football. If you look, we are last in giving the ball up too many times. And you can't do that and win football games. You have to control the football. We didn't create enough takeaways defensively. And you can have the best defense in the country, and if you can't take the football away it doesn't matter. And having success in the red zone, those have been some of the Achilles heels and now we've done well defensively in the red zone, but we've given up big strike plays so we're going to go back and do our plan. The plan, it does work, it has worked. Didn't work this year, but there are reasons that it has worked and there are beliefs behind it. You go with it and make sure you recruit players who believe the same thing."
Illinois play quotes
QB Nathan Scheelhaase
On the end of the season:
"We've been disappointed and frustrated for a while. Obviously we wanted to finish on a good note, but that didn't happen today. We have got to take that mindset into the off-season, that's the only thing you can do as a team. As the guys who are returning, take what's going wrong and learn from it."
On how he will remember this season:
"I hope that this is the one season that felt like it hit rock-bottom, the season that I learned the most from. That's the key, learning from what this is like and not accepting what's going on and not accepting losing in general."
On moving forward:
"(This season has) been hard on us as a football team, and we have nowhere to go but up. But it doesn't happen by just saying something. At the end of the day, behavior is what changes. That's what we have to have, a different attitude, a different behavior, moving forward.
RB Josh Ferguson
On the season and moving forward:
"Personally it hurts. All season not just this game. We have got to try more and just fix things."
On Northwestern's confidence:
"I don't know what to tell you, they did everything right. We turned the ball over, which always hurts from an offensive standpoint. We didn't score enough."