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EVANSTON, Ill. – Reilly O'Toole passed for 147 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for 147 yards, Josh Ferguson had a pair of rushing scores and Illinois took advantage of five Northwestern turnovers for a 47-33 victory over its in-state and Big Ten rival on Saturday.
Illinois (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten) is bowl eligible for the first time since 2011 and the win may end speculation that coach Tim Beckman could lose his job in his third season.
Northwestern (5-7, 3-5) was led by freshman running back Justin Jackson, who had 130 yards on 24 carries and two touchdowns. The Wildcats, though, couldn't overcome five turnovers by quarterback Zack Oliver, who was starting in place of injured Trevor Siemian.
Oliver finished with 221 yards passing, but much of it came after the outcome had been decided. He had just 9 yards in the first half.
O'Toole got the start over usual starter Wes Lunt, who had been ineffective in the previous two games after returning from a broken leg. Beckman said during the week he planned to play both quarterbacks, but he stayed with the hot hand in O'Toole.
Illinois took a 7-0 lead late in the first as O'Toole found wide receiver Malik Turner alone in the front left corner of the end zone for a 10-yard scoring pass to cap an 11-play, 56-yard drive.
On Northwestern's first play following the kickoff, Oliver threw into double coverage and was picked off by Earnest Thomas III, giving the Illini the ball at the NU 49. Three plays later, Ferguson punched it in from the 1 for the 13-0 lead (the PAT kick failed) with 56 seconds remaining in the opening quarter.
That began a disastrous stretch of four turnovers (two interceptions and two fumbles) by Oliver on four straight possessions. Illinois, though, could only manage a fair of David Reisner field goals to extend the lead to 19-0.
The Wildcats' lone highlight of the opening half was an 89-yard kickoff return for the TD by Solomon Vault to trim the deficit to 19-7, but Illinois answered with a 7-play, 82-yard drive — capped by a 14-yard pass from O'Toole to receiver Mike Dudek — for a 26-7 halftime edge.
O'Toole was intercepted by cornerback Matthew Harris on the first play of the third quarter. But the ensuing drive stalled and the Wildcats had to settle for a field goal.
The Illini then seemed to reclaim control with an 11-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 6-yard TD pass from O'Toole to receiver Martize Barr to stretch the lead to 33-10.
Northwestern, though, battled back and trimmed the deficit to 33-25 early in the fourth quarter on a pair of Jackson scoring runs (1 yard and 46 yards) and a two-point conversion.
But again the Illini responded and stretched the lead to 40-25 on a 46-yard TD run by Ferguson with 12:39 left.
The Illini completely sealed the win with a 49-yard interception return for a TD by linebacker Mason Monheim for a 47-25 edge with just under 5 minutes to play.