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Illinois defeats Northwestern 47-33 to become bowl eligible for first time since 2011

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EVANSTON, Illinois — Tim Beckman walked into the small office that serves as the visiting interview room at Ryan Field on Saturday and took a quick look around.

"Two years ago I walked in here and was disappointed as a football coach could be," the Illinois coach said. "Not with our players but with the way the program had turned out. I just felt that we needed to give more."

His players delivered this time.

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.

Illinois (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten) is bowl eligible for the first time since 2011 and the win may end speculation that coach Beckman could lose his job in his third season.

Two years ago, Northwestern won the annual matchup to hand the Illini their 10th loss in Beckman's first season.

"Now we're back, we've got six wins under our belt and I don't think anybody in here thought we'd win six," Beckman said.

To bring its record to .500 and be eligible for a bowl, Illinois had to close out the regular season with back-to-back wins, including its first road win on Saturday.

"Whenever we play Northwestern, as a rival, we should be able to beat them," Ferguson said. "Today was a product of all the hard work."

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.

PHOTO: Illinois wide receiver Mike Dudek (18) misses the catch as Northwestern linebacker Jimmy Hall (9) looks on during the first half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, in Evanston, Ill. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Illinois wide receiver Mike Dudek (18) misses the catch as Northwestern linebacker Jimmy Hall (9) looks on during the first half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, in Evanston, Ill. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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.

"Not good enough," Oliver said. "I came out the first half and turned the ball over four times. You can't win like that, and that's on me. As a quarterback, I've got to be better. That's something I'm going to focus on in the offseason."

O'Toole, a senior, 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.

"Reilly O'Toole's got three victories in the Big Ten and I don't think we were supposed to win any of them," Beckman said. "He won homecoming (Minnesota), he won senior day (Penn State) and then he comes up here and wins on the road."

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. 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.

Northwestern tied to rally in the second half, but Illinois answered every run.

"I'm just glad my season with these guys can go as long as it can," O'Toole said. "I just want to play with these guys for as long as I can, be an Illini for as long as I can and it's come true. Hopefully, we can come out with a (bowl) win."

The other question is whether six wins — following two and four wins his first two seasons — is enough for Beckman to keep his job.

"I haven't even thought about that," he said. "I was worried about beating Northwestern, I was worried about winning a sixth game, I was worried about going to a bowl game."

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Photo Gallery:
PHOTO: Illinois linebacker Mason Monheim (43) celebrates with defensive back Caleb Day (7) after recovering a fumble during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Northwestern, Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, in Evanston, Ill. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
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