CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Mike Kafka spent the third quarter carving up the Illinois' defense and building a 21-3 lead for Northwestern.
When the Wildcats needed a stop to thwart an Illini comeback, Sherrick McManis pulled one out.
Kafka threw for 305 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score, McManis' interception with 32 seconds left was upheld by replay review, and Northwestern defeated the Illini 21-16 on Saturday.
Illinois redshirt freshman quarterback Jacob Charest was benched at halftime of his first start but came back in the fourth quarter to run for a touchdown and throw for another score to lead the Illini back.
McManis sealed it for the Wildcats, pulling the ball away from Jarred Fayson's chest as the two rolled on the ground at the Illinois 35. Officials on the field ruled that Fayson never had possession, and replay officials decided they didn't have enough evidence to change the call.
"It was a blur -- I just know it didn't hit the ground, and I caught the ball and came up with it," said McManis, who has four interceptions this season. "I was pretty confident [that the call wouldn't be overturned]. But you never know with those things."
Illinois coach Ron Zook declined to blame the officials, but hinted he was not happy with the call.
"Everybody has bad games," he said. "Players have bad games, coaches have bad games, officials have bad games. That's just the way it is."
The win all but ensured Northwestern (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten) of going to a second straight bowl game. The Wildcats haven't been to consecutive bowls since going to the Rose and Citrus following the 1995 and 1996 seasons.
"We're not satisfied with seven wins," said Kafka, who was 23 of 37 without an interception. "We want to go out and get that eighth win."
Kafka missed most of the last two games, including the Wildcats' 17-10 upset at Iowa last week, because of a hamstring injury.
Illinois (3-7, 2-6) is guaranteed of a second straight losing season and no bowl, two years after a trip to the Rose Bowl. The Illini had won two straight and were hoping to make an improbable run to bowl eligibility.
Zeke Markshausen had six catches for 104 yards and a touchdown for the Wildcats.
Charest made his first start, for the injured Juice Williams, and completed 14 of 27 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown and two interceptions.
Charest was benched after going 5 for 14 for 34 yards in the first half in favor of Eddie McGee. But McGee was ineffective and Charest got another chance.
Charest returned early in the fourth quarter and ran for a 10-yard TD with just over 10 minutes left to play. The 2-point conversion failed, leaving Illinois down 21-9.
Charest 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 after the touchdown pass, though, McManis pulled the ball off Fayson's chest, ending the comeback.
"[Fayson] was on his back on the field of play and the ball was basically on his chest," referee Dan Capron said after the game. "The receiver did not firmly grab and possess the ball. Before he had an opportunity to do so, the defender from Northwestern came up and did possess the ball."
Northwestern had 222 yards of offense in the first two quarters, but couldn't put much distance between itself and Illinois.
Northwestern kicker Stefan Demos missed two fields goals in the half -- and third in the second.
Kafka found Markshausen for a 28-yard touchdown with 17 seconds left in the second quarter that gave the Wildcats a 7-3 lead and the game's first shot of momentum.
"We couldn't really get much going before that," Markshausen said. "It felt good going into half knowing that we had some momentum built up"
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 Arby Fields stepped in from the Illini 1 with just over 13 minutes to play.