Northwestern holds off Illinois, ties school record with 10th win

SHARE Northwestern holds off Illinois, ties school record with 10th win

Northwestern may be known for producing graduates who go on to plush white-collar jobs in corner offices.

But there’s nothing fancy about this Northwestern football team.

‘‘We’re a Chicago football team,’’ coach Pat Fitzgerald said. ‘‘We’re kind of old-school: ’95 neck roll, four yards and a cloud of dust. To a lot of people, that’s boring. I could care less what they think. I call it winning.’’

Turning in another gritty but efficient performance, No. 16 NU tied the school wins record with its 10th victory, beating Illinois 24-14 before a sparse turnout at chilly Soldier Field on Saturday. The crowd was announced at 33,514, but appeared to be far smaller.

After winning four straight by a combined 17 points, the Wildcats (10-2) posted the first double-digit margin of their five-game winning streak.

They have won 10 games twice in modern times, in 1995 and 2012. (They also won 10 in 1903, but that included two wins against high school teams.)

And now they will have a shot at a school-record 11 wins in their bowl game. Many projections have the Cats tracking for the Outback Bowl, where they would face an SEC opponent such as LSU, Tennessee or Arkansas.

But Fitzgerald is stumping hard for a New Year’s Six at-large bid.

‘‘Look at the resume,’’ the NU coach said. ‘‘We not only played [and beat] a Pac-12 team [Stanford]. We played [and beat] an ACC team [Duke] on the road.’’

Clearly, the discounting of the Cats’ 16-6 victory over Stanford on Sept. 5 sticks in his craw.

‘‘The eyeball test is wins,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘I’d ask the committee to take a look at the film, especially with that team [Stanford] we beat early in the year. I’m tired of hearing that it was early in the morning. I feel like [our players] are getting disrespected. We dominated the line of scrimmage. We dominated the game. I’m tired of hearing that game was at 9 a.m.’’

Fitzgerald also was unapologetic about NU’s two losses — to No. 5 Iowa and No. 10 Michigan, who are a combined 21-3.

‘‘We shouldn’t have lost, but those are two pretty darned good teams,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘And the rest of the games, we’ve won.’’

This was another game in which NU used defense, aided 172 rushing yards from Justin Jackson, to grind past an opponent.

Illinois (5-7) had 319 yards of offense to NU’s 350. And after linebacker Mason Monheim returned an interception 58 yards for a touchdown, the Illini only trailed 21-14 in the final minute of the third quarter.

Illinois seemed in position to get closer. But NU snuffed out the Illini’s upset plan when Cats cornerback Matthew Harris intercepted Wes Lunt at the Northwestern 19 yardline with 9:49 left.

‘‘I thought Northwestern did a good job,’’ Illini coach Bill Cubit said. ‘‘You can understand why they’re 10-2. They don’t make many mistakes.’’

For the second time in three games, NU lost the turnover battle (2-1), but won the war.

Whatever bowl the Wildcats end up in, they’re likely to face a very difficult opponent.

‘‘It’s an opportunity to make a statement,’’ defensive end Deonte Gibson said. ‘‘To say we’re a great academic school, but we also play great football here, too.’’

Even the often-guarded Fitzgerald went a bit farther than usual when asked if this is the best defense he’s coached.

‘‘From a standpoint of our ability to create big plays, absolutely,’’ the former All-America linebacker said. ‘‘We have one more game to go. So statistically, I’ll take a look at that at the end of the year and reflect.’’

That said, it’s already been a very good year.

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