In the 2016 season finale, Illinois couldn’t hold onto the ball, and couldn’t catch up after a slow start.
The Illini (3-9, 2-7 Big Ten) fell behind 21-0 in the first half and turnovers at the worst time derailed any hopes of a comeback. With the 42-21 win, Northwestern (6-6, 5-4) clinches a spot of bowl eligibility and won’t be forced to rely upon its APR score to make postseason play.
The Wildcats rushed for nearly 300 yards and had five touchdowns on the ground. Star Justin Jackson topped 100 yards for the third consecutive year against Illinois.
Here are a couple notes from Saturday’s loss.
It was symbolic of this season that there were even more injuries Saturday.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn didn’t even travel with the team with an undisclosed injury, and Kendrick Foster left early in the game with a noncontact leg injury. That left pretty much Reggie Corbin as the only option in the running game. In a season where Illinois’ offense was decimated with ailments, this was a fitting end that symbolized the entire season.
Wes Lunt played very well in his final career game.
Last week, I laid out my thoughts on Wes Lunt’s career at Illinois, with the lasting memory being one of disappointment. That being said, Lunt played one of his better games of the season Saturday. The senior finished 28-54 with a season high 377 passing yards and was able to routinely pick up chunks of yards by finding Justin Hardee and Malik Turner outside the numbers. Turner had 11 catches for 164 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and Hardee had nine catches for 125 yards. As is always the case with Lunt, there was some bad with the good as he took a pair of critical sacks to kill a drive in the second half and his interception when trailing by 14 midway through the fourth quarter ended all hopes of a comeback.
Special teams needs to be addressed in the offseason.
Lovie Smith’s ‘plan for success’ as a head coach centers around winning all three phases of the game and being able to score in all three phases. The Illini did a good job this season creating turnovers with its defense, but the special teams have been atrocious. Entering Saturday’s game, Illinois was 107th in the country in kickoff returning, 112th in punt returning, 114th in punt return defense and 114th in kick return defense. With those stats alone, it’s hard to see how you can’t make a change.