The Moment Of Not Knowing
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We couldn't tell what happened. We're freaking out about the clock running down as we rushed several subs onto the field, the final play is happening in the exact opposite corner of the stadium from the visitor's section, and we couldn't tell what happened. Brandon Peters rolled out, threw a pass, and then silence.
Not just silence from the Michigan State fans, silence from our Illini corner. I'm being serious - we didn't know what happened. Peters rolled out 130 yards away from us, he threw the ball, and then... nothing.
I came to the game with seven guys. We all rolled into town on Friday night with plans to spend the entire day on Saturday tailgating and footballing, and that's exactly what we did. We got breakfast at the hotel, grabbed an Uber, and joined a friend's tailgate around 10:00 am. Cold, but we felt good.
That's where the whirlwind starts. I know we headed to the alumni tailgate (stood outside - really didn't go in). I did the WCIA pregame show with Jeremy and Bret. I grabbed my press pass at the press gate (so I could interview the players after the game) and headed to the visitors section in the corner. 15 point underdogs, but let's do this.
The game went more or less exactly how I expected it to go. Chunk yards for Michigan State as they get back on track after running the gauntlet of Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State. Real struggles for our offense as we tried to figure out their (always stout) defense. 28-3 before we could blink. We scored the long touchdown just before halftime, but really, this game was over. They're at 28. We can't move the ball. Even if we stop them every single drive, we're still not going to get to at least 28 points.
So we kind of settled in to our usual road game feeling. You go on these trips but you do so knowing how they end. So you take to other things - you get mad at the refs but couch it with "but it still wouldn't have mattered in this one". You question the playcalling. You wonder why we can't look like we looked against Rutgers.
At the start of the fourth quarter, we all held up "4". But it wasn't some I BELIEVE thing - it was sarcasm. One of those things you do that if it works out, you tell people later "I totally held up four fingers at the beginning of the fourth quarter because I knew it was going to happen", but if it doesn't, it was sarcasm.
Another thing about this fourth quarter: Illinois was no longer coming towards us - they were headed to the other end. And on the first play of that quarter, Brandon Peters hits Josh Imatorbhebhe on a slant and he's gone. 31-10 becomes 31-17. So there's a little hope, right? Not much, but some. So my friend Carmen starts the cheer:
Michigan State comes right back with a big play of their own, but wait - offensive pass interference. He pushed off. This pushes them back, they have to punt, Jordan Holmes has a great punt return (before injuring what looked like his knee, possibly ending his season), and now we're set up at midfield. Peters to Reams, Peters to Donny, Peters to Reggie, Reggie runs it in. 31-24. I start it this time.
Now we're really starting to believe. 31-10 is now 31-24? Let's GOOO. Michigan State is driving (and moving the ball into our territory where they're going to put this game out of reach with a field goal), and then it happens: Sydney Brown pick six. We just TIED THIS GAME.
Wait, no we didn't. The most Illinois thing possible happens: McCourt misses the extra point. After 45 seconds of absolute dead silence, Carmen finds some reason: "we can still win this". Five minutes left, this game isn't over.
Michigan State drives down for a field goal, there's 1:36 on the clock, and it's at least possible. Theoretically, we could drive down the field for the winning score. You always want the ball last.
We get to midfield fairly quickly. But then incomplete, sack, incomplete. Fourth and 17. In our little corner, we all knew what was coming - jump ball to Behbhe. Thankfully, Michigan State didn't. First down. Somehow.
Then it gets fuzzy. You're watching it unfold, and you're trying to take it all in, but you can't really keep up. Your brain can't process. I know we got to the one. I know things went poorly from there. I know we were screaming for a flag on that fourth down before anyone in the section saw that there was an actual flag. We reach a massive high when we got the flag only to watch us lose yardage once again on first down. The clock is running, we're running players on, I'm trying to figure out how many seconds will be on the clock when we snap the ball and how many downs we might get after that.
And my brain is racing back to other Illini games in the past. Nebraska 2015, obviously. Purdue 1994, for sure. One of those went very well, one of those went very poorly. What is the last line of this script?
I first noticed the sideline celebrating. If the sideline is celebrating, that probably means someone caught the ball in the endzone, right? Can I let go? Can I cheer? Did it just happen? Did we score?
Having now watched the highlights, I know that the reason we didn't know was because Daniel Barker didn't react. He grabbed the winning touchdown pass - a touchdown catch that capped a 27-point fourth quarter coming all the way back from 31-10 when the quarter began, one might note - but he didn't move. He grabbed it and stood there.
And because of that, our section, in the opposite corner, didn't react. An entire section of Illinois fans, on the road, hoping against hope that we were watching this incredible comeback, and we didn't react. We didn't know what happened.
It was probably only two seconds before the first person reacted (if you were watching on the slightly-delayed jumbotron you probably saw the touchdown), but for me, it felt like I stood there for 15 seconds trying to figure out what was happening. Incomplete? That's fine. Stops the clock, one more play, five seconds left, we can still do this. Wait, what's happening on our sideline? Did someone catch it? In the endzone? Does that mean... did we just win?
WAIT - I haven't done my normal flag check because I just now realized we scored a touchdown. Are there any flags? None? Five seconds? Is this really happening?
Six hours later, I've settled here: I will cherish that moment of not knowing for a long time. Inside that moment - between silence and eruption - lies the rebirth of Illinois football. We've spent the better part of three decades imagining these things happening, but they never come. It doesn't stop us, of course, and we daydream over and over, but it still doesn't arrive. And we're forever in this loop of waiting for moments that don't come.
This moment - this moment came with a pause button. Something happened, I'm not sure what, but let's all figure it out together. Those people down there are celebrating. The people behind us just started celebrating. The team is going insane on the sideline. Did we - my God, did we just beat Michigan State to gain bowl eligibility on November 9th?
You're damn right we did.
Photo Credit: @TCRBrad. That's Carmen with his arms raised. And me lost in the scrum next to him.