Northwestern's going bowling for a second straight year.
There was no repeat of 2014 for the Wildcats on Saturday, Northwestern taking it to rival Illinois in a 42-21 win that secured a sixth win and with it bowl eligibility for Pat Fitzgerald's team.
Running backs Justin Jackson and John Moten IV combined to score five rushing touchdowns, a few in big-play fashion, en route to a 278-yard performance by the Northwestern rushing attack. The Illini turned the ball over four times in this one, including three fumbles, with all four leading directly to touchdowns for the Cats.
Moten had a pair of first-quarter touchdown rushes, the first form nine yards out and the second a huge 43-yard scoring scamper that showed Northwestern's dominance in this one early.
The Cats turned the ball over on downs later in the first half when Clayton Thorson was sacked on fourth down around the Illini 40-yard line, but Illinois receiver Malik Turner fumbled two plays later, giving the ball right back to Northwestern. A big 27-yard Jackson rush followed, and two plays after that, Jackson was into the end zone to make it 21-0.
Illinois struck back with a Wes Lunt touchdown pass on its next drive, and the game was at 21-14 at halftime after Reggie Corbin's eight-yard touchdown run right before the break.
But the Illini's turnover woes kept cropping back up in the second half. A third-quarter fumble by Corbin inside the Northwestern 10-yard line gave the Cats the ball, and they turned it into an 84-yard touchdown drive capped with Jackson's monstrous 54-yard touchdown run.
The Illini followed by missing a field goal but caught a break when Thorson was sacked and fumbled, turning the ball over and giving Illinois a short field and a 24-yard touchdown drive that ended in a Lunt scoring toss to Turner to make the score 28-21.
But after forcing the Cats to punt, the Illini turned the ball over once more, Darius Mosley coughing up the punt return and giving Northwestern the ball around midfield. A 35-yard Jackson run kicktarted the drive, and Thorson finished it off with a touchdown pass to Garrett Dickerson to make it a two-score game.
And one final time, in the fourth quarter, the Illini had a back-breaking turnover, Lunt pitching an interception to Montre Hartage that was taken back 66 yards to the five-yard line, setting up an easy Jackson touchdown rush.
In the end, Illinois out-gained Northwestern by 35 yards and had more first downs, Lunt having a strong statistical outing with 377 passing yards. But the turnovers buried the Illini and boosted the Cats.
Jackson finished with 173 rushing yards and a trio of touchdowns on 21 carries. Moten had 128 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. Thorson threw for 121 yards and a touchdown.
Lunt was great for the Illini, throwing for 377 yards and two touchdowns. Corbin rushed for 70 yards and a touchdown. Turner had 11 catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns.
The win was the sixth of the season for Northwestern, which finished its regular-season schedule at 6-6 and its conference schedule at 5-4. The Cats will head back to the postseason after last year's 10-win campaign.
The loss dropped the Illini to 3-9 overall and 2-7 in the Big Ten, an ugly though not completely unexpected finish in the first season under Lovie Smith.