Best Game The Last Five Years
There were only (maybe) 15,000 of us there. It was a cold Saturday in November, and that was a team that had only won two Big Ten games in three years, so I get it. But I often find myself wishing this game had a place in Illini lore. It was probably the best Illini football game the last five years.
What's that? You don't remember that game? Well, they replayed it on BTN this week so I taped it. (Ha - I still say "taped". Yes, I "recorded it".) Thankfully, I taped three BTN hours back to back - the 2018 Big Ten golf championships (which didn't play - instead it was "The Big Ten's Best Freshmen" or something. The second hour was supposed to be the Penn State game... but it was the 2018 Big Ten women's golf championship. The third hour was supposed to be the Wisconsin game from 2007 (so hot that day), but it was the 2014 Penn State game instead. This has been "BTN programming snafus with Robert".
Most people had tuned out Tim Beckman and Illinois Football at that point in the season, but at 4-6, faint bowl hopes still existed. It was unlikely, especially with Penn State coming to town, but I had interviewed senior Zane Petty after the Iowa game the week before and he looked me in the eye and said that a bowl was still attainable. I always want that for the seniors - I don't have an "I'll pay attention when they get a new coach" bone in my body - so I remember driving to Champaign full of hope that day. There's always hope.
You'll remember the game for one fact: we hit a field goal with :08 seconds left to win. And you remember the next week - we went up to Northwestern and beat Fitzee to send him home for the holidays (and to send us off to the Heart Of Dallas Bowl). And you probably remember that it was Reilly O'Toole coming in for a struggling Wes Lunt who made the late season push a reality. But this PSU game (and that Northwestern game) were so much more than "won a few games in November to sneak into a bowl". It all came rushing back to me upon watching it again. Things such as:
- A breakout performance for Dude K. You forget just how good he was that year until you watch the tape. So, so good. 11 catches in this game for 100-something yards. The broadcasters on ESPN going crazy about him ("Penn State doesn't have an answer"). It was late in the season and we found one thing that worked on offense - have Reilly get the ball to Mikey.
- A season-turning moment from O'Toole. The offense has struggled the entire first half - 0-7 on third down - and then O'Toole comes in with maybe 3:00 to go in the half (trailing 7-0) to see if we can get something going on the ground with a QB running the ball. He runs three times the first series but doesn't pick up a first down. We have to punt... but Penn State jumps offsides and gives us a fresh set of downs. Then it's O'Toole to Dudek, O'Toole to LaCosse, O'Toole to Dudek, right down the field for the game tying touchdown before halftime.
- The crazy kickoff at the start of the second half where, thanks to those Champaign winds, the ball had basically boomeranged in the air and was headed back towards the kicking team. It's a live ball, and we fell on it, and the field goal on that drive gave us a 10-7 lead.
- A defense that played really well. It was fun to watch. Held Penn State to only 14 points. Jihad Ward had a big sack, LaKeith Walls had a big sack, Mason Monheim had a big forced fumble, Fej was just starting to be Fej, Zane Petty made a GREAT play on DaeSean Hamilton (Hamilton was gone for a 70-yard touchdown but Petty made the shoestring tackle to hold him to 15 yards and Penn State had to punt later in the drive) - great effort across the board.
- Darius Mosely made the play of the year. Two minutes left, third down, Penn State trying to pick up a first down to run out the clock, Hackenberg running for the sticks, Mosely pushes Hamilton into Hackenberg and he comes up half a yard short. Penn State has to punt, and then...
- O'Toole to Dudek for 25 yards. O'Toole to Marchie Murdock (his first ever catch) for 15 yards. O'Toole hands off to Josh Ferguson for 15 yards. And suddenly in field goal range. We run a few plays, the clock runs down to eight seconds, David Reisner puts the field goal through the uprights, and the bowl hopes are (somehow) still alive.
The O'Toole thing is what sticks with me. Here's a guy who was the second-string QB (behind Nathan Scheelhaase) for three years before sitting behind Wes Lunt in 2014. There's two games left in his career, almost of them holding a clipboard. And then we send him out there for a struggling Lunt with 3:00 left before halftime in his second-to-last game and he does that. Engineers a comeback, engineers the game winning drive, destroys Northwestern the next week (with something like 140 rushing yards), and earns himself one more game his senior year (in Dallas).
Yes, it was a frustrating time period for Illinois Football. Any time I mention 2014 alongside 1999 (third year for the coach, bowl game), I get a lot of "2014 was NOT like all the other Year Threes". Simon Cvijanovic had just quit the team, and that would later lead to Beckman's dismissal that summer (and then the Cubit interim thing, the report, "not ideal", all of it). I get that we were in a down era that was about to get worse.
But for the way I write about this team, just wanting to tell the stories of the players, especially the seniors, I can't think of a better close to the season in the last decade. All seems lost, but then, at the last possible moment, some hope. And that hope blossoms into a bowl game.
I saw Reilly O'Toole in one of the tailgating lots during the 2016 season and I thanked him for 2014 (specifically, the Penn State and Northwestern games). I told him it was one of my favorite moments to write about in the history of the blog. Every player who signs an LOI deserves a moment like what O'Toole experienced, and I was thrilled to be one of the 15,000 to witness it.
OK, maybe 13,500.