CHAMPAIGN, Illinois — Nathan Scheelhaase wrote his name into the Illinois record book Saturday, piling up enough rushing and passing yards to become the team's all-time leader in total yardage.
On Saturday, he had a tough time thinking about that instead of the game that had just gotten away.
Illinois (4-8, 1-7 Big Ten) fell in its season-closer to Northwestern, 37-34. The game turned on Scheelhaase's only real mistake of the day, a late interception that ended an Illini drive and handed the Wildcats (5-7, 1-7) the scoring opportunity they used to seal the game.
"It was one of those ones that right when I let it go, you want to reach out there and grab it and take it back," the fifth-year senior said. "That's the way it is sometimes."
The game ends Scheelhaase's college career, and a season in which Illinois coach Tim Beckman faced speculation about his job security and was given a mandate to improve on Illinois' 2-10 season in 2012. He said Saturday that his team had gotten there.
"In every facet of this program, we've gotten better. We've won more football games," the second-year coach said. "We are getting better, there's no question about it."
The Wildcats ended a season that started with Big Ten title hopes just thankful for a Big Ten win and an end to a seven-game losing streak. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said his team finished strong under tough circumstances.
"Like I told the team just now, no team in the country got socked in the gut more than these guys did," he said. "They got knocked down and they kept getting up."
Junior quarterback Trevor Siemian and receiver Christian Jones sliced up the Illini defense. Siemian finished with 414 yards passing and four touchdowns, both career highs, and Jones caught 13 balls for 182 yards and a pair of scores.
Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks, who has faced weeks of questions about his job status, said he wasn't thinking about whether or not he'll be back.
"I don't worry about that. I just worry about how my kids are right now. Obviously a tough loss, a difficult season to say the least," he said.
Scheelhaase was 31-45 for 307 yards and two touchdowns, but the interception was a game-changer.
Down 30-27 with just over eight minutes to play in the game, Illinois was driving. On a first-and-10 at his own 45, Scheelhaase rolled right under pressure and, just before he stepped out of bounds, forced a ball down the sideline. The only player close to it was Northwestern defensive end Tyler Scott, who juggled the ball but held it with both hands as he went out of bounds.
The play was upheld on review, a decision the sparse crowd howled loudly about.
"I was throwing the ball out of bounds," Scheelhaase said. "I thought I had enough."
The Wildcats then made quick work of Illinois' defense, driving to the 7-yard line where Siemian found Jones in the end zone for the touchdown that put the Wildcats up by 10, 37-27, with 8:07 left to play.
Illinois pulled back to within three when Scheelhaase hit Miles Osei for an 11-yard touchdown with 2:23 left in the game.
But Northwestern's Cameron Dickerson came up with the onside kick and the Wildcats ran out the clock.
Scheelhaase, a four-year starter, finished his career at Illinois with 10,634 total yards, passing Juice Williams Saturday for the No. 1 spot on the team's all-time list.
Illinois opened the second half with a blast from running back Josh Ferguson, a 55-yard touchdown run that gave the Illini the lead, 24-20.
Ferguson finished Saturday with 110 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries.
His run gave Illinois a solid shot of momentum that its defense put to good use.
The Illini held the Wildcats to just a field goal in the third quarter, and late in the period buried Northwestern at its own 2-yard-line with a 66-yard Justin Duvernois punt, almost a third of it on a big roll.
But Northwestern conjured up a ghost from one of Illinois' worst losses of the season to jump back into the lead.
Illinois' 42-3 loss to Michigan State was close until the Spartans battered the Illini with a 99-yard second-half touchdown drive that changed the game.
The Wildcats only had to go 98 yards, but they did. Siemian finished it with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Rashad Lawrence for a 30-27 lead with 14:55 left in the game.
Illini receiver Steve Hull finished with 155 yards on 13 catches, including an improbable first-half touchdown he caught on his back in the end zone.