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Late turnovers doom Illinois in season finale loss to Northwestern

No back-to-back bowls.

Jack Jungmann // TCR

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — There will be no postseason for Illinois in 2023.

Needing a win to secure bowl eligibility, Illinois (5-7, 3-6 Big Ten) came up short against Northwestern (7-5, 5-4 Big Ten) in its regular season finale, 45-43.

For a moment, it appeared Illinois had some more late game heroics left in the tank. An 80-yard touchdown by Casey Washington with 55 seconds to play gave the Illini a chance to send the game to overtime. But a failed two-point conversion, paired with a seemingly controversial no-call, halted the Illini’s efforts in their tracks.

Ultimately, a flurry of fourth quarter turnovers — two costly special teams fumbles and a tipped interception — were too much to overcome and gave the Wildcats the boost they needed to spoil the Illini’s Senior Day — and postseason hopes — on Saturday.

“To give up 24 points on turnovers, you’re just never going to win games,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “Never.”

The win for the Northwestern sends the Land of Lincoln trophy back to Evanston and snaps a two-game Illini winning streak in the in-state rivalry series.

HOW IT HAPPENED

In a tribute to one of the final games of the Big Ten West’s existence, the first big play of the game came on defense.

Northwestern safety Jaheem Joseph intercepted a John Paddock pass on the Illini’s second drive of the game, setting the Wildcats up with a short field.

Five plays later, they cashed it in for the game’s first points as Northwestern quarterback Ben Bryant found Cam Johnson for a 10-yard touchdown to take a 7-0 first quarter lead.

The Illini answered with a field goal before the two teams traded touchdowns. The Wildcats punched in a 9-play drive on the goal line, while it was a senior-to senior connection that got the Illini into the endzone for the first time on Senior Day.

John Paddock found Casey Washington on a fade route to the give the offense a much-needed jolt. That was just the start of a monster day for the senior wideout — he finished with nine catches for a career-high 218 yards and three touchdowns.

“This, potentially, is my last college game,” Washington said. “I told myself I was going to pour out everything I had.”

While the offense began to find its rhythm, it was the defense that gave the Illini their biggest play of the first half.

Miles Scott picked off Bryant with 1:09 to play, returning it all the way to the endzone to give the Illini a 20-14 lead. It was the second Illinois defensive touchdown of the season — both pick-sixes by Scott.

That lead was extremely short-lived.

Despite Scott’s pick-six, the majority of the story on defense wasn’t positive. The Illini’s end-of-half struggles reared their ugly head once again, as the Wildcats marched 75 yards down the field in just 61 seconds for a go-ahead score heading into the break on a goal line fumble that Northwestern running back Anthony Tyus fortunately fell back on top of.

Out of the locker room, the Wildcat offense was able to double-dip, using the arm of Ben Bryant to go 89 yards for another score.

The Illini were able to surge back in front thanks to 11 unanswered points — the latter eight of which coming on a trick play that saw Isaiah Williams connect with Pat Bryant for a touchdown.

At that point, the Illini clung to a 31-28 fourth quarter lead, seemingly in position to try and close out a rivalry win and begin making plans for a bowl game.

That’s when everything changed in the blink of an eye.

Illinois suffered not one, but two special teams fumbles — first a muffed punt by Isaiah Williams to set the Wildcats up inside the red zone for a quick drive, and immediately thereafter a fumbled kickoff by Kenari Wilcher that Northwestern returned for a touchdown.

“Inexcusable,” Bielema said. “I think we can definitely shore up the idea of how much more we’ve got to be secure with the football.”

From 31-28 Illinois to 42-31 Northwestern in mere moments.

The Illini made an effort to pull off some more late-game heroics, with another Casey Washington touchdown and Tyler Strain interception giving Paddock and co. a chance to win it.

Despite a Paddock interception that led to Northwestern extending its lead to 45-37 on a field goal, Illinois had one more stroke of magic left up its sleeve just when it seemed like they may be out.

Casey Washington raced down the field for an 80-yard touchdown — his third of the game — with under a minute to play, setting Illinois up for a do-or-die two-point conversion that would send the game to overtime.

“We’ve had ups and downs all year and we’ve never flinched one time,” John Paddock said. “If there’s seconds on the clock we’re going to keep fighting.”

It was all for naught, however, as Paddock’s pass attempt on the two-point try was tipped and ruled incomplete after the officials picked up a flag for pass interference, sending the Wildcats home victorious and ending the Illini’s 2023 season.

A valiant effort in a game — and season — of massive twists and turns fell short.

“Through these 12 games I’ve never questioned the heart, the desire, the fight, the faith, the belief that these guys have had,” Bielema said. “Unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough to will us through where we were today.”

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS

AWESOME catch by Casey Washington in his final home game.

Momentum swinging play at the end of the first half... or at least we thought.

Some trickery for Barry Lunney and co.

Such a shame this didn’t end up mattering.

SOUND SMART

UP NEXT

There’s an open spot on Illinois’ schedule for Week 0/1 in 2024.

Welcome to the new Big Ten. We’ll see you next year.