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Illinois celebrates return to Big Ten glory
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois players jumped into the crowd, danced on the field and then made their way to the gold trophy marking their first Big Ten title in more than a decade.
Now they wait to see where that trophy takes them.
The No. 10 Illini earned at least a share of the conference crown with a 34-28 victory over Northwestern on Thursday.
"We had one goal and that was to win the Big Ten championship. This team was not going to let anything derail them from that goal," coach Ron Turner said.
The Illini (10-1, 7-1 Big Ten) finished with their best regular-season record since the 1983 Rose Bowl team and are still in the hunt for a Bowl Championship Series bid.
Illinois will win the Big Ten outright and the automatic BCS bid if Michigan loses to Ohio State on Saturday. If the Wolverines win, Illinois could still receive an at-large BCS bid, but would likely need some help.
Turner said the Illini have done enough on their own.
"Do we deserve to be in a BCS game? Yeah, we do," he said. "We're 10-1 and our only loss is against a Top 10 team. There's no question about it."
As they have all season, the Illini beat the Wildcats (4-7, 2-6) on a standout performance by senior quarterback Kurt Kittner. The four-year starter mixed short passes with a handful of long throws to complete 33 of 43 passes for 387 yards and four touchdowns. He also had one interception.
"We were consistent the entire game. We didn't have to rely on big plays all the time," said Kittner.
The Illini led 34-13 early in the fourth quarter then hung on as Northwestern scored twice to make it close.
Illinois took a seven-point late lead in the third quarter on John Gockman's 52-yard field goal, then forced Northwestern to punt on its next possession.
The Illini drove 64 yards in eight plays, the last a 12-yard touchdown pass from Kittner to Brandon Lloyd that gave Illinois a 27-13 lead.
Illinois got the ball back again when Northwestern's Zak Kustok threw an interception on the first play after the kickoff.
Kittner found a wide-open Lloyd again on a 15-yard touchdown pass with 2 seconds remaining in the third quarter to make it 34-13 lead. Lloyd finished with 12 catches for 140 yards and two TDs.
"We came to win today and we prepared to win, but Illinois made the big plays when they needed them just like they have all season," Northwestern defensive end Napolean Harris said.
Northwestern threatened Illinois late in the game with two touchdown passes from Kustok, and had a chance with the ball on its own 12 with 2:18 remaining.
However, the Wildcats failed to get a first down, missing on four-straight pass plays, and Illinois ran out the clock.