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"Valentino Ambrosio was denied the chance to kick a last-second field goal at the end of the first half.
Given the chance to end the game, he wouldn't be denied again.
Ambrosio kicked a 33-yard field goal through the uprights as time expired Saturday to give the Rutgers Scarlet Knights their second win of the season, besting the Illinois Fighting Illini 23-20. The win improved the Scarlet Knights to 2-2 on the year.
After Illini kicker James McCourt, one of two Illinois placekickers on scholarship, missed a pair of field goals in the fourth quarter to keep the game knotted, it was Ambrosio, a walk-on former soccer player, who booted the game-winner. The field goal was the third of the afternoon for the Cranford, New Jersey native, who had field goals of 29 and 26 yards in the first half.
It was the one he didn't get to kick, though, that fired up Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano before (and after) halftime. With quarterback Noah Vedral and the Rutgers offense driving to end the half, the Scarlet Knights thought the clock had stopped after Vedral hit Christian Dremel for a short gain to the Illinois 29-yard line.
Officials ruled that Dremel had fumbled before getting out of bounds, though, and the clock kept running unbeknownst to many on the Rutgers sideline. Ambrosio and the field goal unit tried to rush onto the field for a hurried attempt, but they were unable to get the kick off before the clock struck zero."
To be clear, that's not how the game went. And although I'm no longer in the journalism industry and it's been nearly a decade since I covered sports, that's the lede I was writing in my head as Rutgers drove down the field at the end of the game.
It would have been the poetic ending, after all -- the Illinois kicker, who might even have an NFL career waiting for him after his collegiate days are over, missing two attempts before the 5-foot 8-inch, 167-pound former soccer player kicking in his first college game drilled a walk-off winner to end it.
Sport isn't always poetic, though. Illinois fans know that as well as anyone, especially in a year in which the team was expected to take another step forward only to have Lucy pull the football away once again. There has been little justice, no rest for the weary.
Saturday offered some respite, if only for a couple of hours. This time, Lucy didn't pull the football away, though she threatened to multiple times. This time, she held it firm, laces out, and Charlie Brown split the uprights.
(McCourt is Charlie Brown in this scenario, making Blake Hayes the Lucy character. Just so we're all on the same page.)
-I don't know if this is some sort of cognitive dissonance, but I'm struggling to remember Isaiah Williams' bad throws on Saturday.
I know they exist. The box score tells me he completed just seven of his 18 attempts. That means 11 of those attempts hit the ground, many likely his fault.
All I can picture right now are the completions, though. The three strikes to Casey Washington. The one down the sideline to Daniel Barker. The out route to Donny Navarro.
I'm not being facetious when I say I can't remember the bad ones. Maybe they weren't that memorable? Maybe this is the hole in my brain that drives my wife crazy?
(I lied -- I now remember one, early in the game, where he dropped back about 15 yards and then had to throw the ball 30 yards in the air to try to gain a first down. At that point I was ready to turn to Deuce. I'm, uh, glad Lovie wasn't.)
The point, I think, is that while it wasn't a good passing performance by One, he showed on more than one occasion that he's capable of good throws. That doesn't complicate the starting quarterback equation for me next weekend -- Brandon Peters is the only quarterback to throw a pass for the Illini this season who currently gives the Illini a competent, two-dimensional offense -- but it does tell me that Williams is the clear-cut backup QB who's more than capable of running the offense in Peters' absence.
-I'm fully here for the Chase Brown Experience.
He's fast, he's tough, he's decisive -- perhaps the worst thing you could say about him is that sometimes he could benefit from a bit more patience or vision, letting a block set up before he shoots full steam ahead. But full steam ahead worked plenty well on Saturday, too.
-I do want to take a second to appreciate Casey Washington.
It's easy for him to get lost in the fray with Josh Imatorbhebhe leading the way and Brian Hightower flashing and the array of tight ends getting everyone excited, but Washington was the guy on the spot Saturday. I'm not sure why he was on one knee when he made his first catch, but it didn't end up hurting the team.
The two he caught on the final drive were huge, obviously, with the free-play, 16-yard bullet he snagged to get the team down to the Rutgers 37-yard line getting a bit buried by the final catch to put the team in field goal range. He's a player.
-The return game, between James Frenchie specializing as a fair-catch artist and Khmari Thompson somehow calling fair catches for other returners, leaves a lot to be desired. Wherefore art thou, Dre Brown and Jordan Holmes?
-It's overly simplistic, but it too often feels like the Illini plan on defense is, "keep everything in front of you, make them sustain a drive and pray to god they make a mistake."
When it goes right -- when Noah Vedral is inaccurate and the ball bounces the right way and three times your defenders are the ones who come down with it -- it works.
When it goes wrong -- when Graham Mertz or Aidan O'Connell is the one doing the passing instead -- they get picked apart, systematically and with little resistance.
Vedral may not be the worst quarterback the Illini see this year -- next week's opponent, Luke McCaffrey, is a highly-touted redshirt freshman who's been good not great this year, and Spencer Petras is the typical "we just need a warm body" Iowa QB -- but it's a needle they're going to need to continue to thread (or a hole they're going to need to patch) if they're going to stand a chance down the stretch.
-Is the linebacking trio of Khalan Tolson-Tarique Barnes-Jake Hansen the best combination the team has right now? I'm not sure who comes off if/when Milo Eifler returns.
-Something's got to give with this group of safeties. Still too many blown assignments in the passing game and bad angles in the running game.
-Good to see Seth Coleman in the box score, and making a play on Vedral in the red zone to keep Rutgers to an eventual field goal. With the upperclassmen doing nothing to get a push up front, is Keith Randolph-Rod Perry-Jer'Zhan Newton-Seth Coleman is the best line group the team has, at least on passing downs?
-I don't really have any #takes about the 14-point spread in the Nebraska game. They got shelled in their season-opener by Ohio State, who's very good. The dodged also-very-good Wisconsin due to COVID. They lost a close game to now-ranked Northwestern. And they beat winless Penn State.
That feels like a team that should win, and win relatively easily, on Saturday. But little has come easy to Scott Frost in Lincoln thus far. Here's to hoping that trend continues.