EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) - With Trevor Siemian out for the season with a knee injury, Zack Oliver had a chance to take over as the starting quarterback and lead Northwestern into the postseason.
Instead, the junior led the Wildcats into the offseason with five turnovers (three interceptions and two fumbles) as Northwestern dropped a 47-33 decision to in-state and Big Ten rival Illinois.
“Not good enough,” Oliver said. “I came out the first half and turned the ball over four times. You can’t win like that, and that’s on me. As a quarterback, I’ve got to be better. That’s something I’m going to focus on in the offseason.”
Reilly O’Toole passed for 147 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for 147 yards, Josh Ferguson had a pair of rushing scores and Illinois (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten) took advantage of the mistakes to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2011.
“Illinois started the game and put us behind the eight ball from the standpoint of being down multiple scores,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We got it down to eight, but we couldn’t get over the hump.
“Congratulations to them. I wish them best of luck in the postseason.”
For the Illini, the win also may end speculation that coach Tim Beckman could lose his job in his third season.
Two years ago, Northwestern won the annual matchup to hand the Illini their 10th loss in Beckman’s first season. It’s the first time Illinois has won at Ryan Field since 2002.
“We’ve got six wins under our belt and I don’t think anybody in here thought we’d win six,” Beckman said.
To bring its record to .500 and be eligible for a bowl, Illinois had to close out the regular season with back-to-back wins, including its first road win on Saturday.
“Whenever we play Northwestern, as a rival, we should be able to beat them,” Ferguson said. “Today was a product of all the hard work.”
Northwestern (5-7, 3-5) was led by freshman running back Justin Jackson, who had 130 yards on 24 carries and two touchdowns. Oliver finished with 221 yards passing, but much of it came after the outcome had been decided. He had just 9 yards in the first half.
O’Toole, a senior, got the start over usual starter Wes Lunt, who had been ineffective in the previous two games after returning from a broken leg. Beckman said during the week he planned to play both quarterbacks, but he stayed with the hot hand in O’Toole.
“Reilly O’Toole’s got three victories in the Big Ten and I don’t think we were supposed to win any of them,” Beckman said. “He won homecoming (Minnesota), he won senior day (Penn State) and then he comes up here and wins on the road.”
Illinois took a 7-0 lead late in the first as O’Toole found wide receiver Malik Turner alone in the front left corner of the end zone for a 10-yard scoring pass to cap an 11-play, 56-yard drive.
On Northwestern’s first play following the kickoff, Oliver threw into double coverage and was picked off by Earnest Thomas III, giving the Illini the ball at the NU 49. Three plays later, Ferguson punched it in from the 1 for the 13-0 lead (the PAT kick failed) with 56 seconds remaining in the opening quarter.
That began a disastrous stretch of four turnovers (two interceptions and two fumbles) by Oliver on four straight possessions. The Wildcats’ lone highlight of the opening half was an 89-yard kickoff return for the TD by Solomon Vault to trim the deficit to 19-7, but Illinois answered with a 7-play, 82-yard drive - capped by a 14-yard pass from O’Toole to receiver Mike Dudek - for a 26-7 halftime edge.
Northwestern tied to rally in the second half, but Illinois answered every run.
“I’m just glad my season with these guys can go as long as it can,” O’Toole said. “I just want to play with these guys for as long as I can, be an Illini for as long as I can and it’s come true. Hopefully, we can come out with a (bowl) win.”
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