EVANSTON-Northwestern's 50-14 rout of Illinois on Saturday at Ryan Field was a snapshot of two teams going in different directions.
There was Northwestern, led by Pat Fitzgerald, a coach in his seventh season who tied the school record with his 49th career win, playing for an Outback Bowl berth and a 5-3 Big Ten mark. And there was Illinois, led by embattled first-year coach Tim Beckman, looking for its first conference win in its last regular-season game.
Maybe nothing better illustrated what kind of a year it has been for Beckman and Illinois than David Nwabuisi's interception of Nathan Scheelhaase near the end of the first quarter.
The NU linebacker returned the pick nine yards to the Illinois 28-yard line. While Nwabuisi was running down the field, an official ran smack into Beckman on the sideline and flattened him, sending both feet flying into the air.
That resulted in a seldom-called sideline interference penalty on Beckman, and the referees marched off 16 more yards -- half the distance to the goal line -- to give NU the ball at the Illini 12.
Talk about adding insult to injury.
Two plays later, Kain Colter threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Tony Jones and the Wildcats had a 17-7 lead.
Incredibly, it was the second sideline interference flag the Illini drew in the first half. The venerable Skip Myslenski has been covering college football for 45 years, and he said it was the first time he had ever heard that penalty called. He ended up hearing it twice in the first 30 minutes.
Illinois also was called for a rare "illegal numbering" penalty for not having enough lineman-numbered players in the game. That call wiped out a two-point conversion.
In all, the Illini were flagged eight times for 88 yards in the opening half. Illinois' Justin Green also fumbled a kickoff, which led directly to NU's first touchdown and a 10-7 lead the Wildcats wouldn't relinquish.
Illinois actually outplayed Northwestern for most of the first quarter. The worst offense in the Big Ten marched 78 yards in 11 plays to open the game, with Scheelhaase completing 4-of-5 passes for 50 yards. Through the 15 minutes, the Illini led in every statistical category except the one that matters most -- on the scoreboard.
But shortly thereafter, Northwestern got its ground game going and turned what had been a close game into a laugher.
In the second quarter, Northwestern mounted a 73-yard touchdown drive in which all 10 plays were runs. The last one was a 3-yard Venric Mark TD.
By halftime, the Wildcats had 190 rushing yards and a 27-14 lead.
Mark went over 100 yards rushing with his first carry of the second half to give him his eighth 100-yard game this season. He wound up with 127 yards and a touchdown, while Colter added 88 and one score of his own.
Colter was just 9-of-11 passing for 102 yards, but a career-high three of those completions went for TDs. The last of them was a 24-yarder to wide open tackle-turned-superback Paul Jorgensen.
After Mike Trumpy scored on a 3-yard run to push the Northwestern lead to 48-14 with 2:09 left in the third, things got downright silly. On their next trip inside the Illinois 10, the Wildcats decided to hand the ball off to Bo Cisek, a 290-pound defensive tackle masquerading as a tailback.
Cisek, whose belly makes the No. 1 on is jersey look like a toothpick, certainly looks the part of William "The Refrigerator" Perry. His Fridge impression backfired, however, when he was stopped for a loss of two yards before fumbling the ball away on his next carry.
Even that potentially embarrassing play turned out to be a positive for Northwestern, though. Two plays later, Max Chapman tackled Dami Ayoola in the end zone for a safety to give the Wildcats their final margin.
Those are the types of breaks you get when you are a program on the rise. And just the type that goes against you when you are finishing off a season to forget.