Illinois beats Northwestern, reaches bowl eligibility


Illinois’ Jihad Ward forces Northwestern’s Zack Oliver to fumble the ball during the game at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., on Saturday. The Illini won 47-33.

By Sean Neumann

EVANSTON, ILL. — It was nearly gift wrapped for Illinois.

The Illini football team became bowl eligible with a 47-33 win over Northwestern on Saturday at Ryan Field – the first time the team has been bowl eligible since 2011.

Northwestern entered the game missing a handful of starters — senior quarterback Trevor Siemian, top-receiver Kyle Prater, and defensive backs Traveon Henry, Godwin Igwebuike and Nick VanHoose.

The Wildcats were forced to go with junior Zack Oliver, who made his first career start at quarterback, while he was backed up by redshirt freshman Matt Alviti.

Illinois forced a season-high five turnovers in the win.

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Head coach Tim Beckman, whose job was in question in the last half of the season, said Saturday’s win was his most gratifying with the Illini.

“These players have bought in,” Beckman said.

Illinois opened up the scoring late in the first quarter with a 10-yard pass from quarterback Reilly O’Toole to freshman Malik Turner. 

Just eight seconds later, Illini defensive back Earnest Thomas III intercepted a pass, and Illinois had the ball again. And just 45 seconds after the touchdown pass to Turner, running back Josh Ferguson’s 1-yard run made it 13-0.

The Wildcats went on to commit turnovers on four straight drives — a pair of interceptions and fumbles that led to three Illinois scores to make it 19-0.

Northwestern couldn’t capitalize on opportunities and momentum shifts throughout the game.

The Wildcats ran back an 89-yard kick return for a touchdown in the second quarter. Then, Northwestern allowed the Illini to extend their lead to 26-7 at the half on an 82-yard touchdown drive led by O’Toole.

The senior quarterback had 294 all-purpose yards, earning 147 yards both passing and rushing, while throwing for three touchdowns.

O’Toole credited the offensive blocking for career-high 147 rushing yards.

“It’s pretty evident that I’m not fast, so if you see me in the open field, it’s got to be because of blocking of some sort,” O’Toole said. “I was just running my slow self 10 yards down the field.”

The Wildcats picked off O’Toole on the first play of the second half, setting their offense up on the Illinois 42-yard line. But Northwestern had to settle for a field goal and let Illinois score another touchdown five minutes later for a 33-10 lead.

And when Northwestern running back Justin Johnson cut the Illini lead to just eight with back-to-back touchdowns, Ferguson answered with a 46-yarder of his own.

The Illini linebacker Mason Monheim took a 49-yard interception back for a touchdown to ice the game.

Monheim said this is the most confident the Illinois defense has played in years, while lineman Jihad Ward — who recovered a fumble in the second quarter — said it was the happiest he’s ever been.

“I believed I would go to a bowl game, so I knew we were going to win the game,” Ward said.

Beckman expressed his pride for the Illini seniors who extended their careers by one more game with Saturday’s win. Even more important, the Illini’s sixth win to reach bowl eligibility came against the team’s biggest rival. 

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @neumannthehuman.