EVANSTON, Ill. -- C.J. Bacher threw two touchdown passes, one to Eric Peterman in the fourth quarter after a 51-yard punt return by Brendan Smith, as Northwestern beat Illinois 27-10 Saturday to strengthen its case for a New Year's Day bowl.
The Wildcats (9-3, 5-3) became just the fifth team in school history to win at least nine games -- the first since 1996 when coach Pat Fitzgerald was the team's star linebacker.
Fans rushed out of the stands and mobbed the team in the middle of the field to celebrate at the end of a cold game for which the wind chill at kickoff was 26 degrees.
Northwestern was already ensured of a bowl bid, but was hoping to land one on Jan. 1. Representatives from the Outback and Capital One -- both on New Year's Day -- and the Alamo and Insight bowls were at the game.
For Illinois, it was the end to a disappointing season following up on a Rose Bowl trip.
The Illini (5-7, 3-5) mounted a second-half comeback after trailing 13-0 at the break, but had their slim bowl chances erased.
With Northwestern leading 16-10 in the fourth quarter, Smith broke off his return to the Illinois 20. Two plays later, Bacher hit Peterman for an 18-yard TD pass with 9:08 left.
Peterman was a tough guy to cover all day for the Illini. He had eight catches for 111 yards.
Illinois quarterback Juice Williams, who was sacked five times, got going in the second half and finished with 94 yards rushing on 25 carries, while completing 20 of 36 for 212 yards. Bacher hit on 22 of 33 passes for 230 yards.
Bacher's 22-yard pass to Peterman on third down and another 13-yarder to Ross Lane sent the Wildcats on a 76-yard scoring drive late in the first quarter, one capped by Stephen Simmons' 1-yard scoring run. Amado Villarreal then missed the extra point.
On their next possession, the Wildcats moved 60 yards against the Illini defense. On a third-and-8, Bacher rolled right and then threw back across the field to the back of the end zone to Lane, who hauled it in while making sure to keep his feet in bounds as the Wildcats went up by two TDs.
The Illini regrouped at the half, took the opening kickoff and moved 80 yards behind the play of Williams, who threw a 31-yard pass to Jeff Cumberland on a third-and-14. He also carried four times, including a 16-yarder that set up a 1-yard TD run by Jason Ford. Williams also eclipsed Tony Eason's single-season school record (3,671) for total offense.
Saturday's game marked the last time Illinois and Northwestern played for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk. The framed tomahawk has been a part of the instate rivalry since 1947, but school officials announced Friday that its run will end as part of the 2005 NCAA directive to stop using American Indian imagery.