After a preseason full of hype and a successful non-conference season, the sky seemed to be the limit for the Northwestern Wildcats going into Big Ten play. Yesterday’s game presented Northwestern with its final opportunity to get a conference win for the season, and the Wildcats finally came through.
Quarterback Trevor Siemian took advantage of the bad Illinois pass defense, throwing for 414 yards and four touchdowns en route to the 37-34 victory. It was the latest in a series of close games for Northwestern, but this time they were able to come out on top of the score. Five of their seven Big Ten losses came by ten points or fewer.
The difference in this game was the execution of the Wildcats offense. The 37 points were the most Northwestern has scored since putting up 38 on Western Michigan on September 14. The Wildcats’ 560 yards of total offense and 13 minute time of possession advantage were also the best Northwestern has managed in those two statistical categories since the game against the Broncos as well.
Defensively, however, it was another mediocre to poor performance for the Wildcats. Fighting Illini running back Josh Ferguson racked up 136 total yards (110 rushing, 26 receiving) and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase complemented that with 362 (307 passing, 55 rushing) of his own to help Illinois put up 34 points and take this game right down to the wire.
The loss continues a streak for the Illini as it’s now been nearly three years since Illinois has won a game at home against another Big Ten opponent. The Illini will have to wait for next season to try to end that streak, and that’s something Northwestern will be doing with a little bit of a different mindset now due to winning this game.
For all the high hopes that the Wildcats brought into this season, disappointment is a logical thing for alumni and fans to be feeling right now. To lose seven out of eight Big Ten games and not reach the bowl season is far from what the expectations were for this team. However, this win provides a little hope to take into the offseason.
The fact that Northwestern was close in most of its losses and finally pulled one out at the end to avoid going winless in conference play showed the heart of this team to keep fighting no matter what the circumstances were. That’s an attribute that the Wildcats can build on. Talent can be improved and execution can be learned, but desire is an innate quality.