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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Steve Greenberg

Illinois demolishes Northwestern 41-3 but finishes behind Purdue in Big Ten West race

Illinois hounded Northwestern quarterback Cole Freeman into five turnovers Saturday in Evanston. (AP Photos)

Illinois destroyed Northwestern 41-3 Saturday at Ryan Field in a game so one-sided, so over-before-it-started, it’s almost as if there was no point to playing it.

Except that it mattered a heck of a lot — potentially — to the Illini, who came into the day with a chance to win the Big Ten West via tiebreaker and earn a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game. They did their part, finishing the regular season at 8-4 overall and 5-4 in conference play for their most wins and their first above-.500 league record since, in both cases, 2007.

Alas, Purdue took care of its own business at Indiana, winning 30-16 to get to 8-4, 6-3. The Boilermakers will take on unbeaten Michigan — a 45-23 winner at Ohio State — next Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium while the Illini rue their performances in losses to both Indiana schools.

“A year ago we were a game shy of bowl eligibility,” coach Bret Bielema said. “This year, we’re a game shy of making it to Indy. A lot of positive steps for our program.”

Various media outlets’ bowl projections have Illinois going to the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., on New Year’s Eve, the Pinstripe Bowl in New York on Dec. 29 or the Duke’s Mayo Bowl in Charlotte, N.C., on Dec. 30.

But the question of where the Illini are headed from here is, of course, a lot bigger than a mid-tier bowl destination. Can Bielema keep the arrow pointed up? A year ago at this time, he harumphed at a 5-7 record, saying, “I didn’t come here to win five games.” He didn’t return to his home state to be a runner-up in the Big Ten west, either.

On a Saturday when unbeaten Michigan and Ohio State clashed — underscoring the usual theme that the West is cupcake country compared with the mighty East — the efforts of Illinois and Purdue were deep in the shadows. But the West is also ripe for the running if one of its schools can rise up sooner than the rest.

Wisconsin and Nebraska are in coaching transition. Iowa has broken offensively, and Minnesota hits a ceiling whenever it comes close. Purdue? The Boilermakers weren’t decidedly better than the competition even this season. That leaves Illinois and Northwestern — one on the rise, the other in a serious rut.

“I’m excited as hell,” Bielema said, “because I think we’re only scratching the surface of what we could be.”

After a brutal 1-11 season and a second straight 1-8 slog in the Big Ten, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald held off on answering questions about how to assess what’s wrong. Saturday was for focusing on the team’s seniors, he said. Monday would be for getting back to the drawing board.

Fitzgerald also was in a hurry to get to Champaign, where son Jack, a Loyola Academy tight end, played Saturday night against Lincoln-Way East in the Class 8A state title game.

Northwestern walk-on quarterback Cole Freeman committed five turnovers — four of them interceptions — in a colossally bad performance, and the Wildcats threw five INTs in all. Illinois safety Sydney Brown scored touchdowns on a fumble return and an interception return, and cornerback Devon Witherspoon picked off two passes.

Bielema is the first Illinois coach to start 2-0 against Northwestern since John Mackovic did it in 1988 and 1989. And when you consider the point differential in those two games — the Illini won by a combined 71 — it seems clear we’ve entered a new era in this rivalry.

“I couldn’t be more excited about this team,” Bielema said, “where we’re at but, more importantly, where we’re going.”

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