CHICAGO (AP) After Northwestern's 10th victory of the season, coach Pat Fitzgerald took the blame for last year's disappointing loss to Illinois, and then took aim at the College Football Playoff Committee.
Justin Jackson rushed for 172 yards and a touchdown, and the 17th-ranked Wildcats beat the Illini 24-14 at Soldier Field 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.
''This game last year, I walked into the locker room, and not to take any credit away from our opponent, I was very self-critical,'' Fitzgerald said. ''I really felt like I failed the team. We had 30-plus guys out in this game a year ago and I was not going to let that be an excuse for our failure and our performance, so it wasn't the guys fault that were out there, it was my fault as the leader of the program that I didn't do enough to get the next group of guys ready.''
Fitzgerald then directed his frustration to what he thinks is a lack of respect for his team in the rankings. Specifically, Stanford is ranked higher than Northwestern despite the Wildcats' victory over the Cardinal in the season opener.
''I don't get it. Pop on the tape and watch the film,'' he said. ''Our kids dominated that game and I don't think they give them credit. We didn't win by 50 today, so we'll continue to get disrespected from that standpoint. We played a very competitive schedule. We had two bumps in the road. I think our overall performance speaks for itself so I look forward watching the College Football Playoff Committee get it right over the next two weeks. I know they will.''
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.
''I'm looking forward to the challenge,'' Cubit said. ''I really am. I think we're this close. We just got to go out there and recruit. I think there's enough people out there.''
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.
Lunt praised the decision to bring back Cubit.
''I think it means a lot just to the stability within the program with so much going on,'' he said. ''To have him named as the head coach I think puts a little ease with the underclassmen.''
In front of a sparse crowd 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.
''Clayton put it exactly where it needed to be,'' Vitale said. ''He put it outside where they couldn't undercut me. Luckily, I kept my concentration and got in.''
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.
Interim athletic director Paul Kowalczyk, who took over when Mike Thomas was fired Nov. 9, said Cubit 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.''
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. School officials said he suffered a laceration.