Ben Bryant completed 24 of 32 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for a score, and Cam Johnson caught seven passes for 124 yards and a touchdown to lead Northwestern to a 45-43 victory over Illinois on Saturday, ending the Illini’s hopes for a bowl berth.
John Paddock completed 24 of 34 passes for 334 yards and three touchdowns, all to Casey Washington, and Reggie Love III ran for 106 yards for Illinois. Washington had nine catches for 218 yards.
It was the fourth win in five games for the bowl-bound Wildcats (7-5, 5-4 Big Ten Conference) while Illinois (5-7, 3-6) lost its fourth of seven home games.
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Two fourth-quarter turnovers that resulted in two Northwestern touchdowns in nine seconds hurt Illinois before the Illini made the game close on a 1-yard touchdown pass from Paddock to Washington and an 80-yard pass from Paddock to Washington with 55 seconds left.
A two-point conversion try after the second Paddock-to-Washington TD was no good.
Bryant scored on an 8-yard touchdown run after Isaiah Williams fumbled a punt and it was recovered by Northwestern’s Raymond Niro III at the Illini 18-yard line.
Illinois’ Kenari Wilcher fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Garner Wallace returned it 18 yards for a touchdown.
Illinois had gone ahead 31-28 early in the fourth quarter on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Williams, a former quarterback turned receiver, to a wide-open Pat Bryant in the end zone.
It was Williams’ fifth career touchdown pass, but his first since 2020, before he switched to receiver.
Northwestern led 21-20 at halftime and struck early in the second half on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Bryant to A.J. Henning.
Illinois’ Caleb Griffin kicked his third field goal, a 40-yarder, then Northwestern’s Jack Olsen missed a 45-yarder, leaving the Wildcats ahead 28-23 after three quarters. Olsen kicked a 46-yard field goal with 2:56 left in the game.
The teams traded touchdowns in the final 1:09 of the first half.
Illinois took the lead briefly on a 55-yard interception return by Miles Scott, who picked off an overthrown pass by Bryant and raced up the sideline into the end zone. It was the second pick-6 this season for the converted receiver.
Northwestern responded with a touchdown on a fumble recovered in the end zone by offensive lineman Dom D’Antonio. Illinois’ Dylan Rosiek stripped the ball away from Anthony Tyus III near the goal line, and D’Antonio fell on the ball.
The Wildcats got an early turnover when a Paddock pass slipped through the hands of Hank Beatty and was intercepted by Jaheem Joseph, who returned his first career pick to the Illinois 26. Northwestern scored on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Bryant to Johnson.
Illinois responded with a 42-yard field goal by Griffin, but the Wildcats extended their lead on a 1-yard touchdown run by Tyus.
The Illini scored on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Paddock to Washington, who swiped the ball away from Theran Johnson in the end zone, and a 24-yard field goal by Griffin before Scott’s interception.
Illinois: A season that started with high expectations ended with a bitter defeat and no bowl game.
Northwestern: A season that began with a hazing-and-abuse scandal and coaching change will continue on for the Wildcats with a bowl game.
Northwestern: The Wildcats will play in a bowl game for the first time since 2020.
Illinois: The Illini will pack up their gear and get ready for next season.