The Illini narrowly avoided a home-field defeat at the hands of Middle Tennessee State on Saturday, a missed field-goal attempt in the final seconds allowing Illinois to improve to 3-1.
The kicking game factored heavily into the game's final minutes, a 51-yard Taylor Zalewski boot proving to be the game-winning play for the Illini in a 27-25 win in Champaign.
The Illini led, 24-12, going into the fourth quarter, but a Blue Raiders touchdown pass a little more than three minutes into the final frame sliced that lead to just five points. With a little more than four minutes to play, Middle Tennessee State got another touchdown pass, this one for 22 yards, to take a 25-24 lead on Illinois after the two-point conversion attempt failed.
But Wes Lunt led an eight-play, 41-yard drive that last roughly two minutes and ended in Zalewski's 51-yard kick, the third 50-plus-yard field goal in his career.
It looked grim for the Illini, though, as the Blue Raiders marched down the field over the final two minutes on a drive that featured two fourth-down conversions. At the Illinois 26-yard line, a 43-yard field-goal try was wide left, and the Illini held on for the escape of a win.
Illinois was fortunate to walk out of Memorial Stadium a winner Saturday, as the offense looked out of sync for much of the game and failed to impress much. The Illini posted just 378 yards of total offense, with Lunt throwing for 238 yards and a touchdown. The running game was a bright side, with both Josh Ferguson and Ke'Shawn Vaughn going for more than 80 yards. Vaughn had an eight-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
But in the first half, Lunt bobbled a snap and fell down in his own end zone, hit for a safety. That gave the ball right back to Middle Tennessee State, which scored a 63-yard touchdown several plays later.
The Illini defense was better than it was last week against North Carolina, but it wasn't quite the dominating force it was in the first two games against Kent State and Western Illinois. Middle Tennessee State threw for 330 yards but rushed for just 38 yards.
The special teams unit made a huge play, with Caleb Day blocking a punt and Clayton Fejedelem falling on top of it in the end zone for a touchdown.
It would have been an embarrassing loss had it ended as such for the Illini, but it didn't, meaning a 3-1 record and halfway to bowl eligibility.