CHICAGO — Bill Cubit was the voice of optimism on Saturday.
Moments after Illinois' 24-14 loss to No. 17 Northwestern, Cubit started talking about what had been an uncertain future for the program before the school dropped the interim tag from his job title when it announced a two-year contract with the coach earlier in the day.
Cubit was promoted from offensive coordinator when Tim Beckman was fired right before the season.
"I'm looking forward to the challenge," Cubit said. "I really am. I think we're this close. We just got to go out there and recruit. I think there's enough people out there."
Illinois' players showed their support for Cubit by giving him a standing ovation when they found out he was staying.
"I think it means a lot just to the stability within the program with so much going on," junior quarterback Wes Lunt said. "To have him named as the head coach I think puts a little ease with the underclassmen."
Interim athletic director Paul Kowalczyk, who took over when Mike Thomas was fired Nov. 9, said Cubit had earned the job.
"I think Bill is imminently qualified," Kowalczyk said. "Obviously, he's been a head coach. He knows what has to be done to run an organization like this and a program like this. Some folks aren't ready for that for that move, but Bill knows. You got to be CEO; you can't just be coach."
Lunt threw for 241 yards and Ke'Shawn Vaughn had 62 yards on 12 carries, but the Illini (5-7, 2-6 Big Ten) lost for the sixth time in their last 10 meetings with the Wildcats.
Justin Jackson rushed for 172 yards and a touchdown, and freshman Clayton Thorson threw for 146 yards and a score as Northwestern (10-2, 6-2, No. 16 CFP) avenged last year's 47-33 home loss to Illinois. It was the fifth consecutive win for the Wildcats, putting them in position for a Jan. 1 bowl game.
In front of a sparse crowd at Soldier Field for an Illinois home game as part of the Windy City Series, Vaughn ran 16 yards to set up a 1-yard keeper by Lunt that gave Illinois a 7-0 lead with 8:59 left in the first quarter.
Then Northwestern took over.
Dan Vitale made a juggling catch and dove into the end zone for a tying 19-yard touchdown reception. A personal foul on Illinois' Caleb Day for leaping over the punt shield set up Warren Long's 3-yard touchdown run with 1:21 left in the first, giving Northwestern a 14-7 lead.
The Wildcats kept up the pressure in the second quarter. Miles Shuler had a 39-yard reception and Jackson carried the ball in from the 3 to make it 21-7 with 11:41 left in the half.
Linebacker Mason Monheim's 58-yard interception return for a touchdown gave Illinois a flash of hope in the third quarter, but the Illini hurt themselves with a couple of big mistakes.