CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Mike Kafka threw for 305 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score and Sherrick McManis made a last-minute interception to preserve Northwestern's 21-16 win Saturday over Illinois.
Zeke Markshausen had six catches for 104 yards and a touchdown to help Northwestern (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten) all but assure itself of going to a second straight bowl game.
Jacob Charest made his first start, for the injured Juice Williams, but was benched at halftime in favor of Eddie McGee before returning to lead the Illini (3-7, 2-6) to two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
Charest completed 14 of 27 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown and two interceptions, including the one that ended Illinois' bid for bowl eligibility following a 1-6 start.
Northwestern hasn't been to consecutive bowls since going to the Rose and Citrus following the 1995 and 1996 seasons.
McGee was ineffective on two third-quarter drives before Charest came back in.
The Wildcats led 21-3 in the fourth quarter before Charest got going. He scored on a 10-yard run with just over 10 minutes left to play, but the 2-point conversion failed.
Charest later found Chris Duvalt for a 32-yard touchdown with just over four minutes left and Illinois stopped Northwestern near midfield to get the ball back at its 21 with 1:14 to play.
Four plays later, McManis pulled the ball off receiver Jarred Fayson's chest as the two rolled on the ground near the 30. The call was reviewed but upheld.
Kafka's big game almost went for nothing.
The senior led the Wildcats on a 99-yard drive early in the third quarter, first hitting Andrew Brewer for 52 yards and then punching the ball in himself from the Illini 1.
He followed that up with a 12-play, 80-yard drive capped when backup running back Arby Fields stepped in from the Illini 1 with just over 13 minutes to play.
Kafka completed 23 of 37 passes without an interception.
Northwestern kicker Stefan Demos missed three field goals on a mild, relatively windless day, but the Wildcats escaped and finish their season against Wisconsin with a chance to improve their bowl standing.
After taking next Saturday off, Illinois and coach Ron Zook finish the season at No. 5 Cincinnati and against Fresno State.