CHAMPAIGN — There are three phases in the game of football — offense, defense and special teams.
On Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium, the underdog Northwestern Wildcats was better than the Illinois Fighting Illini in all three.
The result was a 29-10 victory for the Wildcats before an announced crowd of 35,895 on a cold, wet and windy Saturday afternoon.
“Disappointment doesn’t even seem like a strong enough word for what we did today,’’ said a very honest Illinois coach Lovie Smith. “None of us did our job. It starts with me. I thought I had our football team more ready to play better football than that.
“I didn’t see any signs of this happening today. We will get back to how we have been doing it most of the year. We will get rid of it and bounce back for the bowl game.’’
That’s about the only saving grace for Illinois, which falls to 6-6.
With a four-game winning streak earlier this season, the Fighting Illini are bowl eligible for the first time since 2014.
“I don’t think this takes away from the bowl game,’’ said Illinois quarterback Matt Robinson, who was just 8-of-17 for 108 yards in just his second career start. “We wanted to get as many wins as possible and get ourselves into the best bowl, but we are still going.
“I thought it was going to be better than it was today.’’
Robinson wasn’t the only one that thought that.
Illinois was a 6.5-point favorite over Northwestern, who enter Saturday’s contest with a 2-9 overall record and the Wildcats were 0-8 in Big Ten play.
“We take this rivalry very seriously,’’ said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose team will take the Land of Lincoln Trophy back to Evanston with them. “We have a lot to be grateful for, especially for our seniors. That was five straight (wins) against our in-state rivals.”
So, what exactly happened?
“They just outmatched us,’’ said Illinois offensive tackle Alex Palczewski. “This game is not how we are supposed to play. We have played much better.’’
Palczewski admitted it was one of worst performances of the year for the Illini, who ended the regular season with back-to-back losses and they finish 4-5 in Big Ten play.
Illinois was held to just 160 yards of total offense and a season-worst 14 rushing yards on 26 attempts. Senior Reggie Corbin had seven carries for negative-10 yards and only one of his attempts went for more than 1 yard.
“Some days, it just doesn’t happen,’’ said Smith. “You don’t want it to be your last game against your rival.’’
Not only did Northwestern control the line of scrimmage with its defensive line, but the Wildcats offensive line cleared the way for 378 rushing yards.
Andrew Marty, making his first start for the Wildcats, rushed for 111 yards and 2 scores, while also passing for a touchdown.
“I saw a leader,’’ said Fitzgerald. “I saw a guy that was tough and physical.’’
On several occasions, Marty along with Northwestern running backs Coco Azema, who had 123 yards on 7 carries, and Drake Anderson, who had 87 yards on 23 carries, would get hit at the line of scrimmage but they found a way to gain two yards by simply falling forward.
“It was really just tackling,’’ said Illinois senior linebacker Dele Harding, who had a game-high 15 stops. “Tackling was a major part of them gaining so many yards. We allowed them to fall forward for an extra 2 or 3 yards.
“I don’t want to underestimate anybody, obviously, we kind of did today.’’
Unlike the last four years for Illinois, this season will continue into the holiday season. The Illini will learn its bowl destination and opponent on Dec. 8.
Roundtree surprises Illinois teammates
Illinois defensive lineman Bobby Roundtree, who suffered a severe spinal injury in a swimming accident in May, was back in Champaign at Memorial Stadium for the first time on Saturday.
“Man, I was speechless. I had no idea, nobody had any idea,’’ said Harding.
Roundtree, who was an honorable mention all-Big Ten defensive end as a sophomore in 2018, has been going through rehab at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in Chicago since June.
According to Lovie Smith getting Roundtree back on campus is a major step in his recovery process.
“He has made so much progress,’’ said Smith. “He has been working to get back here with his teammates.’’
Smith said Roundtree’s ultimate goal is to walk again.
A GoFundMe fundraising page was created by the university with an original goal of raising $97,000 to help offset the medical costs. So far, $119,161 has been raised and Illinois has set a new goal of $197,000.