Northwestern unable to hold down Illinois' offense

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) -- As he watched Florida beat Ohio State in the national championship game back in January, Juice Williams, quarterback of two-win Illinois, had a crazy dream.

"I was just thinking, like, wow, I know it's a great feeling to be out there on the national stage," the sophomore said Saturday.

After polishing off their ninth win, 41-22 over Northwestern, the Illini (No. 19 BCS, No. 20 AP) almost certainly will live Juice's dream.

Running back Rashard Mendenhall recorded his 16th and 17th rushing touchdowns of the season against Northwestern on Saturday, setting a new Illinois single-season record.




Rashard Mendenhall



Howard Griffith



Johnny Karras



It could be a showdown at the Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl with Illini coach Ron Zook's old team, Florida (No. 12 BCS, No. 14 AP), where a lot of fans still hold a grudge. Or a BCS bowl, if a few of the teams ahead of Illinois in the polls lose during the next two weeks.

Wherever they wind up, the Illini (9-3, 6-2) will have Williams to thank for leading them there.

A week after winning Big Ten offensive player of the week honors in the Illini's 28-21 upset of Ohio State, Williams didn't let down against Northwestern.

The sophomore ran for 136 yards and two touchdowns, and threw for 220 yards and another score.

Northwestern (6-6, 3-5) started the day with four straight wins against the Illini and a good possibility of landing in a bowl. Even with 10 Big Ten teams eligible, the Wildcats needed a seventh win to improve their chances.

The Wildcats, though, couldn't stop the Illini offense, which piled up 541 yards and 32 first downs, scored on its first two possessions and capitalized on mistakes that plagued Northwestern in the first half.

"We came out strong at the start of the game and then kept our composure after the half to keep control of the game," Zook said.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said the first half doomed his team.

"On the road early on, we needed to go out there and make some plays and compete with them, and obviously, from the outcome, we didn't do that," Fitzgerald said.

Wildcats quarterback C.J. Bacher was intercepted by safety Kevin Mitchell with nobody else within 10 yards of him on their first possession. Illinois went 71 yards the other way, capped by a Rashard Mendenhall touchdown for a 7-0 lead.

The next Northwestern drive was undone by a false start penalty that turned a third-and-1 into a third-and-6, which the Wildcats couldn't convert.

Again, Illinois responded with a touchdown, this time a sneak by Williams.

Northwestern had seven penalties for 57 yards by halftime, and had the ball on offense eight minutes less than the Illini.

When Illinois scored on its opening possession of the second half -- a one-handed 42-yard TD catch by wide receiver Jeff Cumberland -- the score was 28-7 and the game was out of reach.

Bacher completed 29 of 49 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions.

Punter Stefan Demos was one of Northwestern's most effective weapons, pinning the Illini deep several times with low, rugby-style kicks that rolled with precision toward the Illinois end zone.

The Wildcat defense never capitalized, though. Illinois scored on drives of 97, 94 and 84 yards, all punctuated by big plays. Williams averaged almost 15 yards a completion and six yards a carry.

"I think we're playing pretty good," Williams said. "We have a few things that we need to clean up, but overall we're doing pretty good."

Mendenhall, the Big Ten's leading rusher, finished with 124 yards on 27 carries with two touchdowns.

Cumberland, a 6-5, 244-pound sophomore who moved from tight end to receiver in the middle of the season, was Williams' favorite target, catching four balls for 131 yards and a score.

The touchdown was a play to remember. Cumberland hauled the ball in with one hand, then shook two defenders off his back on the way to the end zone.

With their regular season finished, the Illini, officially tied for second in the Big Ten a year after their 2-10, last-place nightmare, may have a long wait to find out where they play next.

If it happens, the Florida matchup could come at either the Capital One or Outback bowls, which were represented at Saturday's game.

Zook didn't talk much about bowl possibilities, but his players allowed themselves a look ahead.

"I don't know where we're going, but someplace warmer than Champaign-Urbana, I'm assuming," Illinois senior linebacker J Leman said.


ESPN Fan Shop Powered By

  • Nike Men's Illinois Fighting Illini Blue/Orange Team Issue Performance PoloShop