Grading Illinois football’s loss to Northwestern


Austin Yattoni

Illinois running back Reggie Corbin (2) runs down the sideline for a touchdown during the first half of the game against Northwestern at Ryan Field on Saturday, November 26. The Illini are down 21-14 at halftime.

By The Daily Illini sports staff

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini football writers graded each facet of the Illinois football team’s 42-21 loss to Northwestern on Saturday. The Illini offense, defense, special teams and coaching were graded.

Offense: B-

Illinois opened the game with four straight punts and a fumble, but looked nearly unstoppable from there on out. Wes Lunt made the most of his final game, completing 28 of his 54 pass attempts for 377 yards, which was the second highest single-game total in his Illini career. The senior quarterback had his eyes downfield all game and threw for big gains with ease — four different Illini receivers had catches for over 20 yards. Malik Turner capped off his impressive season with 11 receptions and 164 yards, while senior Justin Hardee saved his best performance — nine receptions, 125 yards — for his final game. Kendrick Foster left the game in the opening minutes with an apparent hip pointer and did not return. If not for three offensive turnovers, Illinois moved the ball well enough to win this game.

Defense: C-

Defense has been the strong suit for the Illini for most of the season, but the roles switched against Northwestern. Illinois was torched on the ground for 278 total rushing yards, the third highest opposing total of the season. The Wildcats scored all but one of their touchdowns on the ground, and their five rushing scores was the most the Illini have allowed since 2014. Gimel President stood out with two sacks and a forced fumble. Carroll Phillips racked up three tackles for loss, and his 20 total TFLs is tied for fifth-most in a single season in school history. Dawuane Smoot also bolstered his draft stock with two more sacks to put him at five on the year.

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Special Teams: D+

For as much as the Illini kick the ball, it still isn’t a strength. Northwestern enjoyed favorable field position for much of the game and took advantage. Kicker Chase McLaughlin missed a 52-yard field goal attempt to finish the year at 12-for-17. Darius Mosely coughed up a crucial fumble in the midst of an impressive return that would’ve put the Illini at midfield down just one score in the third quarter.

Coaching: B+

Down 21-0 in the second quarter, the Illini looked doomed early on. But offensive coordinator Garrick McGee recognized Northwestern’s weaknesses in the secondary and gave Lunt the freedom to air it out. His 54 pass attempts were the most of any Illinois quarterback on the season, and the Illini offense looked as good as it has in a long time. Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson couldn’t figure out how to contain the Wildcats’ ground game, though, which continuously beat the Illini front seven off the edge. It wasn’t the result Smith wanted to emphasize in a season full of disappointment, but he was optimistic during his postgame presser and seemed eager to put this season in his rearview.

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