Updated: Illinois football loses season finale to Northwestern

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  • Linebacker Mason Monheim dives over the goal line to return an interception for a touchdown during the game against Northwestern at Soldier Field on Saturday. Illinois lost 24-14.

By Michal Dwojak, Staff writer

The Illini (5-7, 2-6 in Big Ten play) needed a sixth win to become bowl eligible and faced off against the Wildcats (10-2, 6-2) for the second straight season to earn postseason play. But players forced costly penalties and gave up big plays in Illinois’ 24-14 loss at Soldier Field.

“It’s pretty deflating,” senior linebacker Mason Monheim said. “We were in a similar situation last year, do or die, and we came up short. It’s certainly not the way we expected the season to go.”

Northwestern entered Saturday’s game with the 12th-ranked scoring offense in the Big Ten, averaging 23 points per game. The Wildcats came out quick against the Illini, scoring 21 points in the first half. A 48-yard pass from Clayton Thorson to Dan Vitale, highlighted the first scoring drive, which ended in a Vitale touchdown reception.

Illinois’ defense almost escaped the following drive, but Caleb Day jumped over the line trying to block a punt and was called for a 15-yard personal foul for jumping into the punting shield. Thorson led the Wildcats down the field after the penalty and scored on a three-yard Warren Long run. The Illini committed another 15-yard penalty, this time a facemask by Eric Finney, on Northwestern’s next drive, which ended with a three-yard Justin Jackson touchdown run.

The defense settled down after allowing three straight scores and were more disciplined after a sloppy start. Senior linebacker Mason Monheim provided some points when he intercepted a pass near the end of the third quarter for 58 yards and the touchdown.

The Wildcats’ playmakers were also limited after the quick start. Thorson finished with 146 passing yards. Jackson finished with 172 rushing yards.

Illinois’ offense hit all the right cylinders to start the game, driving 47 yards on 12 plays, which ended with a scramble into the end zone. But the Illini returned to their old habits that have plagued the group for the entire season. Illinois punted the ball seven times and went three-and-out five times. Receivers also dropped the ball numerous times in key situations, ending drives before they even started.

Lunt finished with 241 yards and one interception and Josh Ferguson finished with 40 rushing yards while Ke’Shawn Vaughn finished with 62.

The quarterback knows there is a lot to work on during the offseason and pointed at himself when asked the woes Saturday.

“I didn’t play really play really well today,” Lunt said. “I felt bad because I wanted to these seniors out in the right way.”

The loss came after interim athletic director Paul Kowalczyk announced that head coach Bill Cubit would be the team’s head coach for next season. Cubit’s two-year extension comes amidst uncertainty in the University, with an interim chancellor an an interim athletic director.

Illinois finished the season with a 5-7 record, and a 2-6 mark in the Big Ten. Although the Illini didn’t finish with six wins, there is still a chance that Illinois can qualify for a bowl game. There might not be enough teams with six wins and the NCAA might have to fill bowl spots with five-win teams.

Illini players would’t be against an invitation to play in a bowl if they were offered to play in one.

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