Chicago — Justin Jackson rushed for 172 yards and a touchdown, and No. 17 Northwestern beat Illinois 24-14 on Saturday.
Freshman Clayton Thorson threw for 146 yards and a score as Northwestern (10-2, 6-2 Big Ten, No. 16 CFP) avenged last year’s 47-33 home loss to Illinois. It was the fifth consecutive win for the Wildcats, putting them in position for a Jan. 1 bowl game.
A few hours before Illinois (5-7, 2-6) took the field, the school announced interim coach Bill Cubit had agreed to a two-year contract. Cubit took over for the fired Tim Beckman right before the season started.
Wes Lunt threw for 241 yards and Ke’Shawn Vaughn had 62 yards on 12 carries, but the Illini lost for the sixth time in their last 10 meetings with the Wildcats.
In front of a sparse crowd at Soldier Field for an Illinois home game as part of the Windy City Series, Vaughn ran 16 yards to set up a 1-yard keeper by Lunt that gave Illinois a 7-0 lead with 8:59 left in the first quarter.
Then Northwestern took over.
Dan Vitale made a juggling catch and dove into the end zone for a tying 19-yard touchdown reception. A personal foul on Illinois’ Caleb Day for leaping over the punt shield set up Warren Long’s 3-yard touchdown run with 1:21 left in the first, giving Northwestern a 14-7 lead.
The Wildcats kept up the pressure in the second quarter. Miles Shuler had a 39-yard reception and Jackson carried the ball in from the 3 to make it 21-7 with 11:41 left in the half.
Linebacker Mason Monheim’s 58-yard interception return for a touchdown gave Illinois a flash of hope in the third quarter, but the Illini hurt themselves with a couple of big mistakes.
Matthew Harris picked off a Lunt pass at the Northwestern 19, and offensive tackle Christian DiLauro was flagged for a false start on fourth-and-1 at the Wildcats 4 on another promising drive. Taylor Zalewski then missed a short field-goal attempt.
Jack Mitchell made it a two-score game with a 39-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, giving the Wildcats a 24-14 lead.
The loss put a damper on Cubit’s promotion. The hiring fills one of several top positions at Illinois opened by months of turmoil in athletics and elsewhere on campus.
Cubit wanted the job from the moment he stepped in for Beckman.
“I don’t think they’re going to find another guy who loves this place like me,” Cubit said after a Nov. 14 loss to Ohio State.
Interim athletic director Paul Kowalczyk, who took over when Mike Thomas was fired Nov. 9, said Cubit had earned the job.
“I think Bill is imminently qualified,” Kowalczyk said. “Obviously, he’s been a head coach. He knows what has to be done to run an organization like this and a program like this. Some folks aren’t ready for that for that move, but Bill knows. You got to be CEO; you can’t just be coach.”
Northwestern defensive back Nick VanHoose took a knee to the helmet while breaking up a pass in the second quarter. VanHoose was hit by Nate Hall as he dove to the ground. VanHoose was alert and acknowledged teammates as he was carted off the field.