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Illinois battles late in season-ending loss to Northwestern

A comeback attempt sniffed out to end the campaign.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

One day, Illinois Football will be playing for the year it currently is — instead of playing for the future.

It just so happens that 2018 was not that year.

Illinois wrapped up another disappointing campaign — and its fourth straight without a bowl appearance — with a 24-16 loss to Northwestern at Ryan Field in Evanston on Saturday afternoon.

While the Wildcats (8-4, 8-1) will play for the Big Ten Championship against the Ohio State Buckeyes next Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the Illini (4-8, 2-7) will have several questions to answer about its roster, coaching staff and direction of the program.

One of those roster questions will be in the pocket where graduate transfer senior quarterback A.J. Bush concluded his one-year stint with the Illini with a good effort against Northwestern. Bush, who transferred to Champaign and spending time in Nebraska and Virginia Tech’s programs, threw for a career-high 281 yards and one touchdown in the loss.

And the backfield might be a question for Illinois, too, after head coach Lovie Smith’s third losing season with the Illini. Junior halfback Reggie Corbin shined again on Saturday after missing most of the last two games with injuries, but a chance to leave for the NFL with a year of eligibility remaining may be too good of an offer to pass up on after finishing the season among the nation’s leaders in yards per carry. Corbin finished with 78 yards on 13 carries and four receptions for 22 yards.

Illinois’ offense couldn’t matriculate points in Evanston, though, especially in the redzone. The Illini were forced to kick two field goals in the first half — Chase McLaughlin’s first two since the win over Minnesota three weeks ago — after getting the ball inside the 20. Illinois kicked another field goal in the second half, inside of Northwestern’s 10.

The last touchdown of the season came on a touchdown catch from Ricky Smalling, who capped a sophomore slump of a season with a big game.

The defense, which gave up 63 points to Iowa last week in the Illini’s biggest loss since the early 20th century, was less than stellar again on Saturday, allowing three scoring drives of more than 75 yards int he first half to the Wildcats. Illinois gave up 63 points three times this season, and the 24 point the Illini have allowed in conference play this year.

One of the few bright spots on that side of the ball for Illinois was the first-career sack for freshman safety Delano Ware. Bobby Roundtree had little help on that side of the ball all season — specifically on the line with first-year defensive line coach Austin Clark — and any signs of life are welcoming entering next season.

And that goes for the entire team.

Any signs of life are welcome entering next season.

It is pretty disappointing when Illinois loses to Northwestern ever. Now it has been four in a row. And it isn’t getting better.

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED

Barker’s PI: Three penalties on Illinois’ first drive of the afternoon forced the Illini to punt. Trenard Davis made a one-handed grab on 3rd-and-4, but tight end Daniel Barker’s pass interference pushed Illinois back 15 yards.

After a QB draw on 3rd-and-long, Illinois was forced to punt.

Bush’s Pick: Illinois had a chance to tie the game late, but Bush threw an interception inside the 20 with just under four minutes remaining. The Illini were trailing 24-16.

TWEET OF THE GAME

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS

Up there with Edwin Carter’s touchdown catch against Western Illinois in Week 2, Sam Mays’ first-quarter grab on Saturday was one of the best offensive plays of the year for the Illini.

SOUND SMART

The REALLY, REALLY YOUNG youth movement only lasted for the Illini in 2017.

Compared to the 86 cumulative true freshmen starts in 2017, there were only 32 true freshmen starts this season.

The 86 had blown by the previous record of 34 in 1977.

It was still a young year — one of the youngest in program history — but it wasn’t 2017.

UP NEXT

First, Director of Athletics Josh Whitman has some decisions to make, including whether to retain Lovie Smith and who to hire as defensive coordinator. The Illini will also be planning to open the Football Performance Center at some point in 2019 before the season.

Illinois will then open the 2019 season against Akron on August 31, 2019, before finishing up the non-conference slate on the road at UConn and home versus Eastern Michigan.

Thank you for following along all season on TCR, and we’ll wrap up the season over the upcoming weeks. May next year be better; it surely can’t be worse.

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