Special Teams Turnovers Spoil Washington's Career Day, Doom Illini Bowl Hopes

By IlliniGuys Staff

November 25, 2023

(Cover photo courtesy Illinois Athletics)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Exactly a month before Christmas, Illinois handed a gift-wrapped victory to rival Northwestern Saturday afternoon.

The Wildcats scored two touchdowns in a nine-second span - both the result of special teams fumbles - in the 4th quarter to steal victory from the jaws of defeat and reclaim the coveted Land of Lincoln Trophy as they defeated Illinois 45-43 Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium.

The win by the Wildcats (7-5, 5-4) caps off an incredible turnaround under first-year coach David Braun, who took over a team that had won a combined four games in the past two seasons on an interim basis this summer.

The Illini (5-7, 3-6) had taken a 31-28 lead on an Isaiah Williams to Pat Bryant touchdown pass with 13:12 left in the game and appeared in control of the game after its defense forced a Northwestern punt on the following series.  But Williams fumbled the punt, which the Wildcats recovered.  Four plays later, quarterback Ben Bryant scrambled in from eight yards out as Northwestern retook the lead at 35-31.

Illinois' Kenari Wilcher fumbled the ensuing kickoff, with Garner Wallace scooping up and running 17 yards into the end zone to steal all momentum and put the game all but out of reach at 42-31.

But Illinois wasn't done.  Quarterback John Paddock and wide receiver Casey Washington, each playing in their final game on Senior Day, connected on a 1-yard touchdown pass to pull within 42-37.  But the Illini failed on the two-point conversion in an attempt to pull within field goal range.

Then after a Northwestern field goal, the two paired up again for a dramatic 80-yard touchdown pass to make the score 45-43.  But another two point conversion failed and an Illinois onside kick was recovered by the Wildcats, who then ran out the clock.

Illinois scored 20 points in the 4th quarter alone, which is more than they scored in four entire games earlier this season.

The loss spoils a career day for Washington, who caught nine passes for 218 yards and three touchdowns.  Paddock finished 24-of-34 for 334 yards with three TDs and two interceptions.

It also effectively ends Illinois' quest for a bowl bid, as they needed a sixth win to qualify.  There is an outside chance a call could still come if there aren't enough six win teams to fill all bowl slots.  Otherwise, the Illini will have to wait two more years to secure their first back-to-back bowl appearances since the Ron Zook era ended in 2011.

Stay with IlliniGuys.com for complete postgame coverage.

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