EVANSTON – Northwestern wanted to bolster its chances for a big-time bowl game. The Wildcats did that and more.
Venric Mark rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown as Northwestern beat Illinois, 50-14, on Saturday.
Kain Colter threw for a career-high three touchdowns and the Wildcats (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten) reached nine victories for the first time since 2008.
The next challenge for the Wildcats is to win a bowl game – they have lost nine in a row.
“Nine wins is a great year. Ten is special,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “To be a bowl champion could be a great exclamation point.”
Penalties and turnovers hurt Illinois (2-10, 0-8), which has lost nine straight and 14 in a row in Big Ten play. The Illini committed four turnovers – including three interceptions – and eight penalties in their season finale.
“When you’re playing a team right now that’s won a lot of football games and is considered one of the top 25, 30 teams in the country, then you’re going to have to play a lot better than we did,” first-year coach Tim Beckman said.
Northwestern captured the Land of Lincoln Trophy after losing to the Illini in the rivalry game the last two seasons.
“It’s a rivalry game, so you definitely want bragging rights,” said Colter, who completed 9 of 11 passes for 102 yards. “I haven’t beaten them since I’ve been here. We really wanted to get this one and get back on track and finish this season up right, and especially do it for our seniors.”
Donovonn Young rushed for 74 yards and a touchdown for Illinois, which ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring offense. Nathan Scheelhaase went 9 for 14 for 91 yards and two interceptions.
Northwestern led 27-14 at halftime, then scored early in the third quarter on Colter’s 15-yard pass to Tyris Jones. After Ibraheim Campbell intercepted Scheelhaase, the Wildcats turned the game into a rout with a 24-yard touchdown catch by wide-open offensive tackle Paul Jorgensen from Colter for a 41-14 lead.
“He was lined up at left tackle and he ends up running down the field wide open,” Colter said about Jorgensen. “It’s a good feeling to get an offensive lineman six points.”
After another Illinois interception, Mike Trumpy scored on a 3-yard run for a 48-14 lead. Northwestern recorded a safety with 3 minutes left.
Despite struggling on offense all season, Illinois showed life early.
The Illini scored on the opening drive on Young’s 15-yard run. The drive covered 78 yards and ate up 6:02 on the clock.
“You look at the way we tackled early, it was pathetic and gave them some opportunities to make some plays,” Fitzgerald said. “Nathan is an outstanding quarterback. They have weapons across the board and made some plays early.”
Northwestern answered Illinois’ touchdown with Jeff Budzien’s 44-yard field goal to make it 7-3.
The Wildcats took the lead for good 32 seconds later. Illinois fumbled on the kickoff return and Northwestern scored on Colter’s 2-yard run for a 10-7 lead. Illinois ranked last in the Big Ten in turnover margin with minus-10.
Colter left the game briefly after tweaking an ankle late in the first quarter. Trevor Siemian replaced him and threw an interception on his first pass attempt. Scheelhaase immediately threw a pick, and a sideline interference call on the Illini brought the Wildcats to the Illinois 12. Beckman fell and made contact with an official, resulting in the penalty. Northwestern scored on a 9-yard pass from Colter to Tony Jones for a 17-7 lead.
Six players scored offensive touchdowns for Northwestern.
“We have a motto. It’s: ‘Everybody eats,’” Colter said. “Everybody wants a taste of the end zone and getting plays.”
Reilly O’Toole took over at quarterback for Illinois early in the second quarter and scored on a 12-yard run to cut the lead to 17-14 with 10:55 left before halftime.
The Wildcats responded with a 3-yard touchdown run by Mark to take a 24-14 lead. Northwestern finished with 338 yards rushing.
“Today was kind of a microcosm of the entire year,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve been able to run the ball pretty efficiently all season long.”
Budzien kicked a 36-yard field goal for a 27-14 halftime lead.
“We felt like that was the worst half of football we played in a month, and the only way it’s going to get fixed is if we do something about it,” Fitzgerald said. “Our team went out there in the second half and dominated the way we should have dominated from the start.”
NOTES: Northwestern last reached the 50-point mark on Oct. 29, 2011, in a 59-38 win over Indiana. ... Mark rushed for 100 yards for the eighth time this season. ... Budzien improved to 17 of 18 on field goals this season. ... Fitzgerald’s 49 victories tied Lynn Waldorf for the school record.