For just the fourth time in program history, Northwestern has won 10 games in a single season.
Matching what teams 1903, 1995 and 2012 did, the Cats grabbed their 10th win of the year, beating Illinois, 24-14, on Saturday at Soldier Field.
A win in whichever bowl game the Cats end up playing in would make it the first 11-win season in Northwestern history.
The Cats scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions in the first half, and the defense played its typical terrific game, limiting the Illini to just 319 total yards.
Illinois, which announced the removal of the interim label and a two-year deal for head coach Bill Cubit prior to the game, finished the season at 5-7, missing bowl eligibility.
Illinois scored on its first drive of the game, taking advantage of a short field to go 47 yards for a touchdown, Wes Lunt falling in behind a mountain of offensive linemen.
But Northwestern countered with an onslaught of offense, a rarity for the Cats. Clayton Thorson hit Austin Carr for a huge 48-yard gain to set up a 19-yd touchdown toss to Dan Vitale to tie the game.
After the Cats forced an Illini three and out, Illinois had Northwestern in a punting situation, but committed a personal foul when Caleb Day “leaped over the punt shield.” That kept the Cats drive alive, and it finished when Warren Long hit pay dirt for a go-ahead touchdown run.
Illinois went three and out again, and Northwestern again moved the ball with ease. Thomson got a big gain of 39 yards on a pass to Miles Shuler, and Justin Jackson was into the end zone not long after to make it 21-7.
It was an incredible offensive start for a team that hadn’t had much success on that side of the ball this season. Northwestern entered as one of the worst passing teams in the country. Thomson threw for 128 yards and a touchdown on the Cats’ first four drives, the last three of which all went for touchdowns.
The first half turned into a snoozer from there as the two teams combined for five punts and a missed field goal. The Cats out-gained the Illini, 204-140 in the first 30 minutes.
After an extremely uneventful majority of the third quarter, Chunky Clements forced a Long fumble, which the Illini recovered. But that turned into nothing, as an Illinois fourth-and-11 try fell incomplete, giving the ball back to the Cats.
But on the ensuing possession, Thorson’s pass was tipped by Clements and intercepted by Mason Monheim, who returned it 58 yards for a touchdown to bring Illinois within a touchdown.
Northwestern answered by driving deep into Illinois territory, Jackson rattling off a long 27-yard run. But when a holding penalty backed the Cats into third and long, Thorson had to chuck the ball away, and the Cats settled for a field goal, making it a 24-14 game.
It looked like the Illini might have capitalized, moving downfield on the ensuing drive all the way to the Cats’ 25-yard line. But Lunt threw an interception right to Matt Harris, ending that threat.
Lunt got the Illini back into scoring position, taking Illinois to the Northwestern four-yard line. Going for it on fourth-and-one, Illinois committed a false-start penalty. Then Taylor Zalewski missed his second field-goal attempt of the game, and the deficit stayed at double digits.
Lunt finished completing 20 of his 41 passing attempts for 241 yards.
Jackson finished with a huge game for Northwestern, rushing 37 times for 172 yards.