NCF Nation: Tim Riley

Sure, there are some what-ifs for Northwestern after a season like this.

What if the Wildcats had intercepted Taylor Martinez in the fourth quarter Oct. 20? What if they had tackled Roy Roundtree before the ball arrived Nov. 12? What if they had protected leads a little bit better?

Had one or two plays went differently, Northwestern would be packing its bags for Indianapolis and the Big Ten title game. Those near misses are frustrating, but the 2012 Wildcats team should be appreciated as one of the Big Ten's best. It certainly looks like Pat Fitzgerald's best product in his six seasons as head coach.

And if Northwestern can get the bowl monkey off of its back in the coming weeks, the season will be branded as a major success, period.

Northwestern made easy work of Illinois in a 50-14 romp at Ryan Field to finish 9-3. A Florida bowl invitation -- Outback or Gator the probable choices -- likely awaits the Wildcats (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten), who are searching for their first postseason victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl.

After a shaky start on defense, Northwestern dominated the Illini with a dynamic run game and capitalized on Illinois' many mistakes. The game basically was over as soon as Northwestern announced its star backfield of quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark would be available to play.

Colter and Mark knifed through Illinois' defensive front, which hasn't been the biggest weakness for the Illini this season but certainly was Saturday. The tandem combined for 215 rush yards and two touchdowns, and Colter added three touchdown passes on only 11 attempts, including a well-designed pass across the field to Tyris Jones in the third quarter. Six different Wildcats players reached the end zone, including Paul Jorgensen, a converted tackle who Illinois didn't bother to acknowledge on a 24-yard scoring reception midway through the third.

Northwestern diversified its run game, using Tim Riley as a power back and getting Jones and Mike Trumpy involved as well. The Wildcats racked up 338 rush yards and even put punt protector Bo Cisek in at tailback in the fourth quarter (he fumbled).

Had wideout Christian Jones tiptoed into the end zone, Northwestern would have had three different Joneses -- Tyris, Tony and Christian -- score touchdowns.

Illinois' much-maligned offense actually showed some fire early, as running back Donovonn Young ripped through some shoddy Northwestern tackles. The Illini (2-10, 0-8) scored two touchdowns in the first 20 minutes, but then they started making mistakes. Eight first-half penalties combined with four turnovers doomed the Illini, who went winless in Big Ten play for the fourth time since 1997.

Coach Tim Beckman's first season was an utter disaster, but it still would be surprising if he isn't back in 2013. There likely will be staff changes -- I've heard at least two assistants are done -- but Illinois can't dump Beckman after one year and expect to hire anyone decent.

Illinois had won the teams' past two meetings and rubbed it in last year, playing "Sweet Home Chicago" when it was over. But Northwestern has been the better program for the past decade and showed why Saturday.

It's been a disappointing season around most of the Big Ten, but Northwestern can feel good about itself with a solid 9-3 record that easily could have been better. The Wildcats entered the year with a young team not projected to do much. Now they're likely headed for a Jan. 1 Florida bowl against an SEC team. And almost everyone returns for 2013.

The future is bright in Evanston.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Greetings from Northwestern, where I'm spending the day with coach Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats. I caught the last half of Northwestern's full-pads practice Thursday morning -- the team's seventh workout of the spring.

Here are some notes and observations:
  • The defense definitely carried the day, although to be fair, the unit faced only reserve quarterbacks as Dan Persa is still rehabbing his torn Achilles. Safety Brian Peters recorded two interceptions, linebacker Tim Riley and safety Ibraheim Campbell both broke up passes and the line did a nice job stopping the run.
  • Rising sophomore Kain Colter, who provided a spark in the TicketCity Bowl, had the best day among the quarterbacks. He showed good accuracy on short passes but needs a bit more zip on his intermediate and deep throws. Colter's mobility fits in well with the offense, and if he can strengthen his passing game just a bit, he could win the backup job.
  • Quarterback Evan Watkins had a rough day. The rising junior overthrew several receivers, was picked off by Riley and nearly threw an interception to sophomore defensive end Anthony Battle. Watkins has a strong arm, but in this offense, you need to have a lot more accuracy than he showed today.
  • Jeravin Matthews has emerged as Northwestern's second starting cornerback opposite multiyear starter Jordan Mabin. Matthews, a strong special-teams player who has struggled to find a position, displays a lot of aggressiveness -- sometimes too much -- in coverage but boasts good speed and athleticism.
  • David Arnold is working opposite Peters at safety. Although Fitzgerald told me he's pleased with the play of several safeties, including Campbell, I'd pencil in Arnold as a starter right now.
  • Wide receiver is Northwestern's deepest position and it could be getting better for the 2011 season. Mike Jensen, a converted defensive back, looked impressive in practice and has caught Fitzgerald's eye along with Charles Brown, a senior who has battled through some injury issues.
  • Offensive coordinator Mick McCall got after the unit after a bad sequence, at one point yelling, "Do stuff right!"
  • Redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Siemian moves well in the pocket and has some touch on his passes, although consistency remains an issue. Peters picked off one of his passes.
  • Several key players were held out, including wide receiver Jeremy Ebert, who expects to return soon after tweaking his hamstring.

More to come from Evanston, so stay tuned.