Season ends in disappointment



By Wes Anderson

EVANSTON, Ill. – With their lingering hopes for a bowl game on the line, the Illini’s last-ditch effort to salvage a year of underachievement came up well short.

Quarterback Juice Williams struggled in the passing game and was sacked five times as Illinois’ much-hyped season ended unceremoniously with a devastating 27-10 loss to Northwestern in Evanston, Ill.

For seniors like Ryan McDonald, who has started every Illinois game since 2005, ending a tumultuous career on a losing note was tough to swallow.

“I don’t really know what to say,” an emotional McDonald said. “One thing you learn with football is nothing’s guaranteed. That’s a great thing about it, too, because you go up and down and you learn a whole bunch of stuff.”

Saturday’s contest was the last in a stretch of three games – against Western Michigan, Ohio State and the Wildcats – that was hoped to solidify the Illini’s second straight bowl berth. Instead, Illinois (5-7, 3-5 Big Ten) lost all three, and came up one win short of bowl eligibility.

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    “I feel bad that we didn’t get it done,” Illinois coach Ron Zook said. “As I told (the team), blame the coaches, blame me. That’s our job, to get these guys the way they’re capable of playing, and we didn’t do it.”

    Wildcats quarterback C.J. Bacher stymied the Illinois defense throughout the game and threw for 205 yards, including a crucial 18-yard touchdown pass to Eric Peterman that gave the Wildcats a decisive 14-point lead late in the fourth quarter.

    “We kind of wanted to go with a pitch-and-catch mentality,” Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got to throw it on time, we’ve got to catch it and take care of the football. I thought we executed the game plan pretty well.”

    Northwestern (9-3, 5-3) capped off a regular season that will likely culminate with an upper-tier bowl bid. Although Ryan Field was only two-thirds full, with orange-clad Illinois fans filling many seats, the exultant student section had plenty to celebrate and rushed the field after the game.

    “I couldn’t be more proud of our football program,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re very excited to at some point, find out where we get to represent this great Big Ten Conference in bowl play.”

    For Illinois, the struggles began early. After a slow start, the Wildcats got on the board first thanks to a methodical, 13-play scoring drive late in the first quarter. Bacher’s longest pass of the day, a 22-yard stripe to Eric Peterman, moved the Wildcats into Illinois territory, and a 1-yard rush by Stephen Simmons gave Northwestern a 6-0 lead.

    Zook said that the lack of pressure on Bacher, who finished 22-of-33 with zero sacks, kept the Illinois defense from halting the Northwestern offense.

    “The thing that frustrated me more than the pass coverage was that we couldn’t get to (Bacher),” Zook said. “When you play a team like that, it’s hard to take the passing game away.”

    Meanwhile, the Illinois offense struggled to establish any kind of rhythm, with only 11 total yards in the first quarter. As a result, the Northwestern defense spent most of the first half off the field, and the Wildcats often had advantageous field position.

    After an Illini three-and-out early in the second quarter, a 14-yard touchdown pass from Bacher put the Wildcats in front 13-0.

    The Illini’s fortunes appeared to turn around on the opening drive of the second half, when an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive narrowed the lead to six. Vontae Davis then made an interception with Northwestern deep in Illinois territory to keep the Wildcats from extending their lead.

    “We always seem to, for some reason or other, play better from behind,” Zook said. “I thought if we could get close in the second half, we’d have a chance.”

    Both teams then traded field goals to make the score 16-10 early in the fourth quarter, but Northwestern eventually pulled away in the final minutes.

    A 51-yard punt return by Brendan Smith led to Bacher’s second touchdown pass, and a two-point conversion made the lead 24-10 with 9:08 remaining. A field goal by Amado Villareal with 2:44 on the clock then secured the win for Northwestern and made the final minutes of the Illini’s season a formality.

    With a long offseason ahead of him, Zook said that every facet of the Illinois program will be under the microscope and promised better days were ahead.

    “We’ll go back and evaluate everything. Every coach, myself, what we did in the offseason, everything,” Zook said.

    “People are going to say the program slipped back. It didn’t slip back. I promise you, this program’s still going full steam ahead. This is where we’re going to find out what we’re made of.”

    Saturday was also the final game for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk. A sudden announcement from both schools’ officials late in the week confirmed that the 51-year-old trophy was considered a part of the Native American imagery that Illinois was told to stop using. The Tomahawk will be kept in Evanston – a decision made before the game – and the schools will adopt a new rivalry trophy.