CHICAGO-It was a game that drew scads of media attention for its location, and then rules changes at the 11th hour. But in the end, Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure stole the show.
Leshoure ran all over the Northwestern defense for a school-record 330 yards and two touchdowns to lead Illinois to a 48-27 win over the Wildcats at Wrigley Field.
In all, Illinois pounded out 519 yards on the ground to control the clock and, it turned out, the game.
The Wildcats trailed by 14 points twice in the first half but came back to tie it at 24 late in the second quarter. From there, however, the Illini scored the next 17 points and Northwestern wasn't able to answer.
The first half was an offensive bonanza that featured a combined five touchdowns and 515 yards of offense.
Illinois established its ground game early. Leshoure ran for 32 yards on the first play from scrimmage and accounted for all 66 yards in the three-play touchdown drive that gave the Illini a 7-0 lead. The junior tailback from Champaign, Ill., ran for 215 yards on 18 carries in the opening 30 minutes alone, and his 1-yard staked the Illini to a 14-0 first-quarter lead.
The Wildcats looked, at that point, like they had left their A-game back in Evanston. The defense was unable to tackle Leshoure and the offense couldn't hang onto the ball. Evan Watkins lost a fumble on Northwestern's first drive, and Adonis Smith coughed one up on the second.
Ironically, it was an Illinois turnover that got the Wildcats back into the game. Safety Brian Peters stepped in front of an Eddie McGee pass at the NU 41 and ran 59 yards -- into the dormant East end zone deemed too dangerous for scoring -- for a touchdown to cut the Illinois lead to 14-7. McGee, who took just one snap at quarterback in the game, was under pressure on the play and threw the ball directly to Peters.
The two teams slugged it out from there. Illinois got a Jason Ford touchdown to extend the lead to 21-7, but Mike Trumpy returned the favor with an 80-yard touchdown run on the very next play from scrimmage. Trumpy broke through the line and outran the Illinois secondary down the left sideline, igniting the majority purple portion of the sellout crowd of 41,058.
Derek Dimke added a field goal for Illinois, but Northwestern tallied the next 10 points on a Stefan Demos field goal and a 2-yard Trumpy run to draw even at 24.
From that point, however, Illinois outscored the Wildcats 24-3 to win going away.
The Illini called runs on 17 of their 21 plays in the pivotal third quarter, when they extended their lead to 34-24. Northwestern, meanwhile, went three-and-out on its first two possessions of the half.
Illinois ran the ball seven straight times on a touchdown drive to stretch the lead to 41-24 early in the fourth, and the game was effectively over.
Illinois mounted touchdown drives of 13, 7 and 14 plays in the second half and wound up with a commanding 41:16-to-18:44 edge in time of possession.
Watkins, in his first career start, finished 10-of-20 for 135 yards and one interception on a ball thrown behind intended receiver Tony Jones. He was also sacked three times.
Trumpy wound up with career-high 129 yards rushing on 13 carries, and two touchdowns.
In addition to Leshoure's gargantuan numbers, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase added 97 rushing yards (and just 40 passing yards), while Ford's 86 yards on the ground featured three TDs.
Peters had two interceptions and a game-high 18 tackles for Northwestern.