Illinois falls to Northwestern in season finale 37-34

Following a loss, it’s easy to second-guess one or two plays that went wrong. Nathan Scheelhaase has seen 30 losses in his four years as Illinois’ starting quarterback, and even though Saturday was his last one, he was still second-guessing afterward.

A fourth quarter pass that was meant to go out of bounds for an incompletion against Northwestern instead ended up in the hands of Wildcats defender Tyler Scott. Northwestern would take the ball 48 yards through Illinois territory for a touchdown to extend a three-point lead to 10.  

The deficit proved too much and the Wildcats finished off a 37-34 victory over the Illini at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, bringing the Land of Lincoln trophy home for the second straight year.

“I was just throwing ball out of bounds, thought I had enough on it,” Scheelhaase said. “I didn’t think (Scott) was there to make the play, but it was one of those ones that, right when you let it go, you want to reach out there and grab it and take it back.”

Scheelhaase finished 31-for-45 passing with two touchdowns and the interception. He surpassed Juice Williams for Illinois’ all-time career yards record with 10,634 combined passing and rushing yards. Scheelhaase beat Williams’ record by 40 yards.

“It’s an amazing feat, and something I really can’t wrap my head around quite yet,” the fifth-year senior said.

Northwestern jumped out to a 10-0 lead after a field goal to open the game and a one-handed catch by receiver Christian Jones went for a touchdown.

Illinois answered in the second quarter with two touchdowns in three minutes of play. Steve Hull caught a 25-yard touchdown pass while lying on his back in the end zone. Hull slipped on the play, but Scheelhaase’s throw landed exactly where he was lying.

“I tried to plant my feet,” Hull said. “The inside foot slipped out from underneath me. When I fell I just hoped the ball would get to me and be in my reach. I saw it and just threw my hands up.”

Hull finished his senior year — his only one as receiver — with 993 yards and seven touchdowns. Running back Josh Ferguson added a 1-yard touchdown run minutes later to put Illinois up 14-10.

Northwestern answered with a score the next possession on a pass from quarterback Trevor Siemian to receiver Rashad Lawrence. Both teams would knock in field goals before the half, to put Northwestern up 20-17 at the break.

Ferguson opened the second half with a 55-yard touchdown run on the second play. After both teams traded field goals in the quarter, Siemian opened the fourth with a touchdown to Lawrence on a 23-yard pass to put the Wildcats up 30-27.

Then came Scheelhaase’s interception.

“I think he was just trying to make a play,” head coach Tim Beckman said. “It ended up being a factor in the football game.”

The last touchdown pass of Scheelhaase’s career was the first score of close friend Miles Osei’s career. Osei, also a senior, caught the pass to cut Northwestern’s lead to three with 2:23 remaining. But the Illini failed to recover an onside kick and the Wildcats ran out the clock.

The seniors walked off the field for the last time embracing each other with teary eyes. Senior linebacker Jonathan Brown tied his career high with 17 tackles in his final game.

“Right now it doesn’t mean anything,” he said of his performance with red, puffy eyes. “I’m hurt we lost this game. I’m kind of really sad that my career at Illinois has come to an end. I’ve had some great memories and great times.

“You really can’t put it into words.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.