CHAMPAIGN — It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
And Saturday night, Illinois looked done for against Nebraska. Until it wasn’t.
Handed the ball with 51 seconds to play, the Illini, trailing 13-7, went down the field and scored a game-evening touchdown, kicking the go-ahead extra point with 10 seconds left on the clock to earn a 14-13 win over the Huskers at Memorial Stadium. It was the program’s first win in a Big Ten opener since 2011, improving Illinois to a 4-1 mark on the season.
And everyone in the stadium was left thinking: How did that just happen?
“I don’t even know what to tell you,” interim head coach Bill Cubit said after the game. “All I can do is tell you about the kids’ resolve on the sideline, never believing that they were going to lose.
“I’m not stunned because of the type of kids that we got. But, boy, I’m sure proud of those kids.”
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As terrific as the Illinois defense played Saturday, it looked like it wasn’t going to be able to do enough to pull out a victory. The Illini used all their timeouts trying to stop the Huskers on a drive that stretched into the final minute, but Nebraska kept marching.
But at the Illinois 27-yard line with about a minute to play, the Huskers inexplicably passed the ball on third down instead of handing it off. An incompletion stopped the clock. Then, on fourth down, instead of testing the windy conditions and trying a field goal — which if successful would’ve put them up nine and effectively ended the game — the Huskers passed again, another incompletion and a turnover on downs.
The Illini took over with 51 seconds left, and quarterback Wes Lunt completed a 15-yard pass to Sam Mays before heaving a 50-yard bomb to Malik Turner, who hauled it in at the Nebraska seven-yard line. It was a stunning turn of events, the Illini with goal to go.
Lunt threw five straight incompletions — four to Geronimo Allison — but was bailed out with a pair of pass-interference calls on Nebraska. The sixth toss — all these passes went to the same spot in the end zone, by the way — was caught by Allison to tie the game at 13. Taylor Zalewski added the extra point for the Illinois win.
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That’s how to explain it. You’ve still got to work on believing it.
“I think we were surprised that we had 51 seconds because we were trying to calculate if they ran the ball every time how much time we’d have. We were thinking like 29, 28 seconds. And they passed, and that really helped us,” Lunt said. “It saved a lot of time on the clock, and we needed everything to get the job done.”
“It was kind of shaky at first because they made a few first downs in their drive. I’m just watching the clock, anticipating. ‘We’re gonna get our shot.’ And we got our shot,” Allison said. “The atmosphere on the sideline was positive. ‘Let’s go out there, let’s drive downfield, let’s make a play.’”
Illinois’ offense made the most of the last opportunity it was given, which is not something that happened for much of the game. The Illini scored zero points through three quarters, failing to capitalize on three straight first-half drives that ended inside the Nebraska 35-yard line. Zalewski missed a pair of field goals, and after a muffed Huskers punt, the Illini turned the ball over on downs in the red zone. That’s not to mention all the dropped passes throughout the game. Some of that can be chalked up to the conditions, which got wetter as the game went on, but it’s something that the Illinois receivers have struggled with all season.
Thankfully, the Illini got a massive performance from their defense, which allowed the Huskers to hit the end zone just once and limited Tommy Armstrong — who entered the week as the Big Ten’s leading passer — to a 32.3-percent completion percentage and just 105 yards.
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Illinois held Nebraska to a season-low 292 yards, particularly amazing when you realize the Huskers were averaging more than 500 a game coming into Saturday.
The defensive effort allowed Illinois to remain in striking distance, even with how ineffective its offense was playing.
Lunt found Marchie Murdock for a 22-yard touchdown not long into the fourth quarter, cutting a 13-0 Nebraska lead to just a six-point game. And though the offense went back into a bit of hibernation after that, the defense kept the Huskers off the scoreboard, setting up the final drive.
Not quite stunned enough?
Saturday’s win was Illinois’ first over Nebraska since 1924. That’s 91 years ago.
It all means the Illini are 1-0 in conference play, and with the way the Big Ten West has played out after just a week of Big Ten games, they might find themselves in the division race a little longer than thought possible. Wisconsin, Minnesota and of course Nebraska all lost Saturday. Northwestern and Iowa look like juggernauts, both at 5-0. And Purdue, despite its loss, came as close as you can come to knocking off the No. 2 team in the country Saturday.
In other words: Who could’ve called this?
“When I walk over on the other side, I want that coach to say, ‘Your guys played hard.’ And if you play hard, you give yourself a chance,” Cubit said. “We’re going to make mistakes, there’s no doubt. These are young men. But as long as they play hard, you give yourself a fighting chance. I watched a couple of those games, too. And your sitting there (thinking), ‘OK, if we just keep on plugging along, we give ourselves a chance.’ I think in the last couple years, honestly, it’s probably been pretty hard at times. But I think our kids, when you tell them they’re good and you go about your business the way these kids are going, we’ve got a shot. That’s all you ask for.
“All this means is we’re 1-0, but it’s the first time 1-0 since I’ve been here.”