Illinois defeats Northwestern 48-27
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Wrigley Field might never see a performance like this again.
And not just because there might never be another football game on the Cubs' home field.
On a Saturday meant to recreate the good old days yet provide a once-in-a-lifetime experience junior running back Mikel Leshoure and Illinois delivered on both counts.
With an overwhelming rushing attack that netted Leshoure a school-record 330 yards and the Illini an absurd 519 yards on the ground, Illinois bludgeoned Northwestern 48-27 on a chilly afternoon before 41,058 fans.
Giddy Illini dumped Gatorade on coach Ron Zook as time wound down and Illinois (6-5, 4-4) clinched its fourth bowl bid in the last 16 years.
"Two phrases really sum up the day," said Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. "The offensive line and Mikel Leshoure, because they played their butts off today.
"We knew we'd have some things that would work up front, but to think he'd have 330 yards ... it was just play after play after play where we were blocking well up front, there might be one guy in the hole and Mikel would make him miss and just take off."
Five minutes into the first football game at Wrigley since 1970, Leshoure owned 79 yards and 2 touchdowns.
His first 2 carries the first two plays of the game he raced through gaping holes for 32 and 30 yards. Leshoure tacked on runs of 70, 39 and 62 yards as cramps were the only thing that held down the 230-pound bruiser with the 4.4 percent body fat.
"I thought he ran well and I thought we tackled very poorly," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. "It just came down to that. It looked like we had guys in position to make plays and we just didn't tackle him."
It wasn't just Leshoure. Backup Jason Ford powered for 86 yards and 3 scores and Scheelhaase, mixing options with scrambles, added 97 yards.
And it wasn't just Northwestern's tackling shortcomings. When Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino scoured tapes, he thought NU's linebackers flowed quickly to the ball.
"The cutback lanes, the linebackers were flowing for us and they opened up cutbacks," Leshoure said.
"We put in probably five or six different running schemes out of a lot of different formations," Petrino said. "That really helped us."
Petrino even took advantage of the 2:35 p.m. start by shoving tables aside in a Westin Hotel dining room Saturday morning and having his offense walk through 35 plays.
"A lot of those plays were the plays that we ran well in the game," Petrino said.
Meanwhile, Northwestern's best efforts to get the maximum out of redshirt freshman quarterback Evan Watkins in his first start didn't pan out.
His first pass was swatted away by defensive tackle Corey Liuget. On his third play, middle linebacker Martez Wilson blitzed in for a sack and the fumble was recovered by Clay Nurse at NU's 30.
Shortly after the officials moved the ball to the other 30 to accommodate the game's special rule all offensive plays must go toward the west end zone Leshoure gave Illinois a 14-0 lead with 10:06 left in the first.
The Illini had all the momentum, but Petrino's trick play (an Eddie McGee halfback pass) resulted in Brian Peters' 59-yard interception return into the east end zone.
To cap the wild first quarter, Mike Trumpy raced 80 yards (the longest NU run since 1982) to cut Illinois' margin to 21-14.
Northwestern forged its first tie on Trumpy's 2-yard blast late in the second quarter, but Derek Dimke's field goal closed the half with Illinois up 27-24.
Northwestern (7-4, 3-4) never got closer as Watkins couldn't provide the same spark as injured starter Dan Persa.
The Wildcats managed just 3 points in the second half while Ford clinched the Land of Lincoln Trophy with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown blasts.
Watkins finished 10 of 20 for 135 yards, 1 interception and 3 sacks. NU finished with a season-low 318 total yards.
"This was his first big game," said Wilson, who had 2 sacks and 2 hurries. "We just tried to pressure him as much as possible. Mix him up. Disguises. I was in different places on the field where they had to find me."
Said Watkins: "There's a lot of plays I wish I had back.
"They executed better than we did. We didn't execute very well today and I'll take credit for that on offense."
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