"You look at the way we tackled early, it was pathetic and gave them some opportunities to make some plays," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Nathan is an outstanding quarterback. They have weapons across the board and made some plays early."
Northwestern answered Illinois' touchdown with Jeff Budzien's 44-yard field goal to make it 7-3.
The Wildcats took the lead for good 32 seconds later. Illinois fumbled on the kickoff return and Northwestern scored on Colter's 2-yard run for a 10-7 lead. Illinois ranked last in the Big Ten in turnover margin with minus-10.
Colter left the game briefly after tweaking an ankle in the first quarter. Trevor Siemian replaced him and threw an interception on his first pass attempt. Scheelhaase immediately threw a pick, and a sideline interference call on the Illini brought the Wildcats to the Northwestern 12. Beckman fell and made contact with an official, resulting in the penalty. Northwestern scored on a 9-yard pass from Colter to Tony Jones for a 17-7 lead.
Illinois was called for two sideline infractions, both on Beckman getting too close to the play. He blamed himself for both calls.
"When you're playing a team right now that's won a lot of football games and is considered one of the top 25, 30 teams in the country, then you're going to have to play a lot better than we did," Beckman said.
Reilly O'Toole took over at quarterback for Illinois early in the second quarter and scored on a 12-yard run to cut the lead to 17-14 with 10:55 left before halftime.
The Wildcats responded with a 3-yard touchdown run by Mark, capping a 79-yard drive to take a 24-14 lead.
Budzien kicked a 36-yard field goal for a 27-14 Northwestern halftime lead. The Wildcats reached the Illinois 9, but a clipping penalty pushed them back to the 24, and Northwestern had to settle for the field goal.