A forgettable season for first-year Illinois coach Tim Beckman came to a resounding conclusion on Saturday.
The Illini dropped their ninth straight in a 50-14 loss to Northwestern. During that streak, opponents outscored Illinois 333-118.
"We have to move forward," Beckman said. "There's only one way you can go and that's forward.
"The losing really hurts."
After marching 78 yards on 11 plays to score a touchdown during the opening drive, the Illini (2-10, 0-8 Big Ten) fell apart. Four turnovers, including three interceptions, led to 28 Northwestern points.
Venric Mark rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown as Northwestern improved its chances for a berth in a New Year's Day bowl game.
Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter threw for a career-high three touchdowns and the Wildcats (9-3, 5-3) reached nine victories for the first time since 2008 and captured the Land of Lincoln Trophy after losing 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 15-yard touchdown for Illinois, which has lost 14 in a row in Big Ten play and ranks last in the conference in scoring offense. Nathan Scheelhaase went 9 for 14 for 91 yards and two interceptions for the Illini.
"We've felt like we've been in a struggle for a while, kind of in a bind that we haven't been able to crawl out of," Scheelhaase said. "As a season, as a whole, it's been tough."
Northwestern led 27-14 at halftime, then scored early in the third quarter on Colter's 15-yard pass to Tyris Jones. Ibraheim Campbell intercepted a Scheelhaase pass and 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.
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.
"We'll definitely remember the sting of this whole season, not just this game," Illinois running back Josh Ferguson said.
Despite struggling on offense all season, the Illini showed life early. They scored on the opening drive on Young's 15-yard run, going 78 yards in all and eating up 6 minutes. A penalty nullified a 2-point conversion attempt, but the Illini nailed the extra-point kick.
"You look at the way we tackled early, it was pathetic and gave them some opportunities to make some plays," Northwestern coach Pat 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 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 Northwestern 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.
Illinois was called for two sideline infractions, both on Beckman getting too close to the play. He blamed himself for both calls.
"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," Beckman said.
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, capping a 79-yard drive to take a 24-14 lead.
Budzien kicked a 36-yard field goal for a 27-14 Northwestern halftime lead. The Wildcats reached the Illinois 9, but a clipping penalty pushed them back to the 24, and Northwestern had to settle for the field goal.