EVANSTON — In other times this season, the University of Illinois may have folded.
Not on Saturday. Not in a rivalry game against Big Ten Conference West champion Northwestern at Ryan Field in Evanston. Illinois had a chance on first down from the Northwestern 17-yard line and 3:34 left to find the end zone, get a two-point conversion and tie the game.
Instead, Northwestern linebacker Paddy Fisher hopped up and intercepted Illinois quarterback AJ Bush Jr. to seal the game and a 24-16 win against the Illini.
Illinois finishes the season at 4-8, two more wins than head coach Lovie Smith had last season.
No. 20-ranked Northwestern (8-4) led 24-6 with 4:57 left in the third quarter before the Illini scored 10 unanswered points to give Bush and the offense a chance to win the game.
After a dismal performance against Iowa last week, and a loss to Nebraska the week before, there was finally a sign of fight.
“I’ve got to thank the young guys and the seniors," Illinois senior lineman Nick Allegretti said. "They wanted to give us the best chance they could to win that game. We were in position. Northwestern made a play. That’s all it was. It was a competitive game. We didn’t come out with a win, but I’m proud to play in that game. I’m proud to be part of a team that played tough that game."
The Illini had their chances time and time again. Drives that ate clock and picked up yards stalled out, settling for field goals from Chase McLaughlin (21, 29 and 26 yards) in the final game of his career.
“There were some big plays left out there, in my opinion," Bush said. "I know you all saw it. We don’t have to talk about it."
The first quarter was a steady dose of flags to keep points off the board. The drops came, too, specifically from receiver Sam Mays who couldn't haul it in twice for big plays.
If those plays hit, it doesn't come down to a fourth-quarter push to salvage the game, especially after Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald pulled his offensive starters for most of the second half ahead of next week's Big Ten championship game against Ohio State.
“I thought AJ was outstanding," Smith said. "That’s been the case. We’ve left some plays on the field in the passing game. This wasn’t the first game. Most of the guys who dropped some passes during the game came back strong at the end and made a couple plays. Watching the game that it ended up being an eight-point game, and we left some plays out there and it affected the outcome."
Bush was 22 of 39 for a career-high 281 yards and a touchdown to put a cap on his brief Illinois career while rushing for 56 yards. After leaving last week's game with an injury, Reggie Corbin had 78 rushing yards and receiver Ricky Smalling had seven grabs for 72 yards and a score.
Bush officially joined the team in training camp and was effectively a one-year rental who left an impact on a team filled with kids not far removed from their senior prom.
“It means a lot," Bush said of being let into the program. "It means the world to me, man. There were other quarterbacks they could have picked, but at the end of the day they chose me. I’m always going to be thankful for the Block I."
The Illinois defense held the Northwestern offense out of the end zone in the second half, but not before starting running back Isaiah Bowser rushed for a career-high 166 yards and quarterback Clayton Thorson threw for 110 yards and two touchdowns.
There was enough to prove for the defensive players. They got walloped last week against Iowa and had rival Northwestern in front of them to end a season where they finished allowing 508.3 yards per game, the most in school history.
“It didn’t start today," said defensive back Stanley Green, who had a team-high 13 tackles. "It started on Sunday. We’re playing Northwestern. We don’t like them and they don’t like us. We came today to show that and tried to come out with a ‘W.’
“Anytime a game is 63-0, you’ve got to look at the defense and look at the man in the mirror. We had to come out and prove that we’re better than that."
The loss ended a tumultuous five years for some, including Allegretti, Austin Roberts, McLaughlin and injured receiver Mikey Dudek.
But Allegretti didn't shy away from the adversity he faced.
“If everything was easy, you go out and win every single game, I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now," he said. "These five years built me. I came in as an 18-year-old kid and I think I’m leaving as a 22-year-old man. I went through constant coaching change, players, really good friends, transferring, injuries to my best friend Mikey Dudek. A ton of stuff we went through, it grows you."
Now, Smith and company head into the offseason with an opening on the staff, particularly defensive coordinator, and with the need to put a bow on their recruiting class.
Year Four of Lovie begins.